For decades, stories have circulated that Richard Nixon physically abused his wife, Pat Nixon—yet the allegations have, for the most part, been ignored. They do not make up a large part of his legacy or the public consciousness, nor have they been seriously considered by his biographers.
Now, in a new piece in Longreads, writer and editor Elon Green dives deeper into those abuse allegations, and makes a persuasive argument that it’s time we examine why they were ignored and thought of as unworthy of serious reportage.
Green notes that stories of Nixon’s alleged abuse of his wife Pat have been part of the public record for decades:
There have also been darker reports, many of which were rounded up in Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s 2000 Nixon biography, The Arrogance of Power. For instance: Allegations that Nixon “kicked the hell” out of Pat in 1962. That, after telling America that the country would not have him to “kick around anymore,” the former vice president “beat the hell” out of her. That, in fact, she had been so injured “she could not go out the next day.” That, on an unspecified occasion, one aide or perhaps more “had to run in and pull [Nixon] off Pat,” who sustained bruises on her face.
That Nixon struck his wife while he was president.
Green goes on to write that “[w]hat can be said with confidence is the truth of the matter has not been been satisfactorily resolved,” before detailing several times that Nixon allegedly physically abused his wife, beginning in the 1960s.
He shares a 1980 conversation between Edmund “Pat” Brown, who ran for governor of California in 1962 against Nixon, and Fawn Brodie, a writer who wrote a biography of Nixon, about rumors during the gubernatorial campaign that Nixon “kicked the hell out of” Pat. Green shares a snippet of their conversation, which was recorded and is part of Brodie’s files at the University of Utah:
BRODIE: Were you aware of Pat as a campaigner, in the campaign, at all? Was she —
BROWN: I don’t think she campaigned. She may have gone to a few women’s parties. But we got word, at one stage of the campaign, that he kicked the hell out of her. He hit her or some damn thing. Did you ever hear that?
BRODIE: That story keeps surfacing.
BROWN: Some of the guys that were on the plane with the campaign came to me confidentially and said, “Nixon really slugged his wife. He treated her terribly. He hauled her out in the presence of people.”
BRODIE: He slugged his wife in front of people?
BROWN: Well, in front of one of the press that was supposed to be friendly to him. He got so angry.
BRODIE: He hit her.
BROWN: But I can’t prove that. I never used it.
This theme—of allegations of physical abuse heard second-hand and passed on, what Green describes as a “game of telephone”—emerges in other stories that Green recounts:
The biographers Summers and Swan, who interviewed Hersh, also talked to John Sears, who worked for Nixon in 1968. With Sears, who was suspected of being Deep Throat, it’s essentially a high-level game of telephone: Sears heard from Waller Taylor, a senior partner at Nixon’s law firm, that in 1962 Pat Nixon was hit so hard “he blackened her eye” and “she threatened to leave him over it.”
The game of telephone continues with a quote from William Van Petten, a reporter who covered the ’62 campaign. Van Petten told a writer named Jon Ewing that he found Nixon to be “a terrible, belligerent drunk” who “beat Pat badly … so badly that she could not go out the next day.” Van Petten, Summers and Swan write, was informed this had happened before, and that Nixon aides, including Ehrlichman, “would on occasion have to go in and intervene.”
More accusations come courtesy of Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigate journalist. As Green notes, in March 1998, Hersh told an audience at Harvard that “there was a serious empirical basis for believing [Nixon] was a wife beater,” and that Hersh had access to records. “I’m talking about trauma, and three distinct cases,” he said.
Hersh wrote about what he knew of Nixon’s spousal abuse in his memoir, Reporter, which was published in May 2018. He recounts an incident that happened in 1974:
I was called by someone connected to a nearby hospital … and told that Nixon’s wife, Pat, had been treated in the emergency room there a few days after she and Nixon had returned from Washington. She told her doctors that her husband had hit her. I can say that the person who talked to me had very precise information on the extent of her injuries and the anger of the emergency room physician who treated her.
Hersh then called John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s White House counsel, to verify the tip he had received. According to Green, “Ehrlichman not only declined to wave Hersh away from the story, but said he knew of two other instances of abuse: one from 1962—presumably the instance referenced by Cullen—but also one that occurred during Nixon’s presidency.”
None of these stories were seriously investigated at the time. According to The New Republic, Hersh, in his memoir Reporter, explained why he declined to report on the abuse allegations against Nixon: “All I could say is that at the time I did not—in my ignorance—view the incident as a crime.”
Green writes in Longreads, “Decades later, we’re left having to deal with a handful of hazy stories, and wondering about the motives of the men and women telling them.” For what it’s worth, Tricia Nixon Cox, Richard and Pat’s eldest daughter, has in the past denied that her father abused her mother, telling the Associated Press in 2000 after the publication of The Arrogance of Power, “Because I lived at home with them and my sister, I can state unconditionally that at no time during 1962 or ever did my father ever strike my mother or did my mother ever have physical signs or bruises of the type claimed in this book.”
What is most stunning about this story is the realization that not only were these abuse allegations widely known among the journalists and members of the political class of the day, they were brushed off and deemed unimportant, irrelevant to what were considered more pressing political matters. (Hersh’s justification for not inquiring further into the stories he had heard, which he explained in his 1998 speech at Harvard, is probably typical of the viewpoint of journalists—almost all men—at the time: “My concern was that I couldn’t find a time when Richard Nixon went looking for Pat and couldn’t find her and bombed Cambodia instead. But if I had I would have written it as an example of why his personal life impinges on policy. You know, he liked to beat up his wife, he couldn’t find her, went out and hit Cambodia, right? Okay. I’m joking. But the point I’m making is I couldn’t find any connection between what he did in his private life, and so I didn’t use it.”)
You can read the full Longreads story here.