But after painfully slow questioning, I learned only the following: No, she was never bored with campaigning, brought no books along, needed no distraction. (“I’m always interested in the rallies, they’re so different. Some are outside; some are inside. Some have old people; some have young people like the one today.”) There was nothing special she wanted to do with her influence as First Lady. (“I think a person has to just be herself.”) But she was glad she’d had so much “on-the-job training” for the entertaining she would have to do. Her only other interest was education. (“As a teacher, I agree with Dick’s education program 100 per cent. I’d like to work on job and educational opportunities for all. I don’t like this dropout system we have now,”) She was keeping a journal on life as Mrs. Nixon for her daughters, but never used anecdotes, of course, because she might have to write down the names of real people. She liked the theatre, especially My Fair Lady, and had seen Hello, Dolly! three times: twice with visitors, and once because their “family friend,” Ginger Rogers, was doing it. (“I feel there’s enough seriousness in the world without seeing it in the theatre.”) She liked historical novels, especially the lives of Queen Victoria and Mary Todd Lincoln, also Thomas Wolfe’s novels, but seldom had time to read “just for entertainment.” Or to go to fashion shows. (“I’m pretty selfless about things like that. I just keep busy with all our friends. Instead of a long lunch, I like to take them to a museum or the park. I find we all like that much better than just making social conversation.”) There is no Generation Gap at all in her family. (“Why only the other day, Tricia and Julie didn’t go to one of their parties. I said. ‘Aren’t you going out?’ And they said, ‘Oh no, we’d much rather have dinner with you and Daddy.’”) The woman in history she most admires and would want to be like is Mrs. Eisenhower. Why? “Because she meant so much to young people.”
Each of these answers had required several questions. She wasn’t pleased at having to dredge around for such subjective information as what she identified with, other than daughters and husband. (She didn’t answer that one at all.) And I wasn’t overjoyed with so many bland answers. Mrs. Eisenhower was the last straw.
I was in college during the Eisenhower years. I told her, and I didn’t think Mrs. Eisenhower had any special influence on youth. “You didn’t?” Long pause. “Well, I do,” she said finally. “Young people looked up to her because she was so brave all the time her husband was away at war.” Longer pause. We eyed each other warily as I searched around for some fresh subject.
Then the dam broke. Not out of control but low-voiced and resentful, like a long accusation, the words flowed out.
“I never had time to think about things like that—who I wanted to be, or who I admired, or to have ideas. I never had time to dream about being anyone else. I had to work. My parents died when I was a teenager, and I had to work my way through college. I drove people all the way cross-country so I could get to New York and take training as an X-ray technician so I could work my way through college. I worked in a bank while Dick was in the service. Oh, I could have sat for those months doing nothing like everybody else, but I worked in the bank and talked with people and learned about all their funny little customs. Now, I have friends in all the countries of the world. I haven’t just sat back and thought of myself or my ideas or what I wanted to do. Oh no, I’ve stayed interested in people. I’ve kept working. Right here in the plane I keep this case with me, and the minute I sit down, I write my thank you notes. Nobody gets by without a personal note. I don’t have time to worry about who I admire or who I identify with. I’ve never had it easy. I’m not like all you . . . all those people who had it easy.”
The staffman had been signaling vainly to me for some time. We had landed, stopped at the ramp, and I was interfering with routine. Mrs. Nixon fingered her old fashioned diamond ring for a moment, then, public smile re-fixed firmly, she patted my arm. “Now I hope we see you again soon; I really do; bye now; take care,” she said, standard phrase upon standard phrase. “I’ve really enjoyed our talk. Take care!”