Podcast: Linda Hobgood on Pat Nixon and the Press
Pat Nixon sitting with ABC correspondent Virginia Sherwood in the White House Yellow Oval Room on October 13, 1971. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)
Linda Hobgood is contributing author of “Media Relations and the Modern First Lady: From Jacqueline Kennedy to Melania Trump”
What was First Lady Pat Nixon’s relationship with the media during the presidency?
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we explore this subject with Linda Hobgood, director of the speech center at the University of Richmond, and instructor in their department of rhetoric and communications.
She is a contributing author of a new book, “Media Relations and the Modern First Ladies: From Jacqueline Kennedy to Melania Trump”
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the Nixon Now Podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at Nixon Foundation or at nixonfoundation.org. What was First Lady Pat Nixon’s relationship with the media during the presidency? Here to answer this and other questions is Linda Hobgood. Dr. Hobgood is a director of the Speech Center at the University of Richmond, and instructor in their Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies. She’s a contributor to an upcoming book edited by Lisa Burns, professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University, called “Media Relations and the Modern First Ladies: From Jacqueline Kennedy to Melania Trump.” . Dr. Hobgood, welcome.
Linda Hobgood: Thank you so much for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: First question. What brought you into this field of study?
Linda Hopgood: Actually, it dates back to the summer of 1973 when I was a White House intern and was invited back in 1974.
Jonathan Movroydis: What… So, you were a White House intern working in which part of the White House? Working in the West Wing or were you working in the first lady’s office?
Linda Hobgood: One year I was in on one side and one year the other. The first year, 1973, I was in an office under the responsibility of William J. Baroody, Jr. and I was in the presidential proclamations office in what used to be called the old Executive Office Building on the first floor. It was very close to the President’s working office. We were just a few doors down. And as the summer progress, I was doing work under the leadership of Bryce Harlow and Melvin Laird in domestic relations, domestic policy.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did you come to focus on Mrs. Nixon as a field of study?
Linda Hobgood: As the field of study, I suppose it has a good deal to do with my graduate field in college, which was rhetoric and I became interested in presidential rhetoric, but because of the relationship with Mrs. Nixon, which I had during my second year at the White House, I focused on her, especially, in many regards because I thought she had a good deal to impart about the way first ladies conduct themselves and carry out what responsibilities they assume as first lady. Rhetorically, I thought she was an exemplar. And her conduct as first lady, I think remains a model that is too easily overlooked. But the culmination of working with her and also studying presidential rhetoric and the rhetoric of all who serve at the request or the pleasure of the president of the United States, which includes by marriage, the president’s spouse, she became a fascinating topic of study for me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little about that? You’re saying that you became a student of presidential rhetoric? How does the first lady in her rhetoric fit overall to the presidential goals of using his or her rhetoric?
Linda Hobgood: It’s vital in many ways. The first lady can be an extension of the president’s policies and goals throughout an administration. And in Mrs. Nixon’s case, she served as a first lady during a very pivotal time in the women’s movement, great deal of cultural transition was occurring during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And Mrs. Nixon navigated some fairly choppy waters with dignity and a calm serenity that I think it remains an example for all.
Jonathan Movroydis: What kind of… You mentioned some of those issues. How was Mrs. Nixon deployed? Or did she deploy yourself to communicate for the administration, the White House? How did she communicate this and how did she face these challenges to the country and how did she communicate the president’s message and her own message?
Linda Hobgood: Well, first of all, by fully supporting his agenda and his convictions in regards to the presidency and what might be accomplished, what might…the potential that existed for increased international understanding and reduction of hostilities and end of the Vietnam War, but an end with dignity. And Mrs. Nixon loved to travel. She fully supported her husband’s aims. And if you combine the two, she served as both an official and unofficial capacity as ambassador for the Nixon administration throughout.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about the research and the people you interviewed for this chapter in this upcoming book?
Linda Hobgood: Most of the interviews actually took place in the ‘70s. All three of Mrs. Nixon’s press secretaries are deceased. And I was fortunate enough to know one of the three very, very well. Those I interviewed, members of Mrs. Nixon staff had known her first two press secretaries also, and so their insights became very valuable. But some of the staff members closest to Mrs. Nixon, I worked with and had the honor of knowing the ways they themselves reflected Mrs. Nixon’s purposes and intentions or conduct, her rules for the letters, and correspondence with constituents of every background and economic strata, foreign, domestic. It was very exciting, quite frankly, to be a part of that operation even for a short time. I came to know Susan Porter who is now Susan Porter Rose, Gwen King, Susan Lollithan Dolibois, Lucy Winchester, and Helen Smith, obviously, and her staff which includes Patti Matson. And it was just a very exciting group of women to work with. They had very high standards and that was a wonderful thing to gain in the process of working at the White House.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s talk about the standards a little bit. Could you tell us a little bit about Mrs. Nixon’s rules for letters and the overall standards of the media operations of the first lady’s office?
Linda Hobgood: With regard to correspondence, Mrs. Nixon had a high standard of brief turnaround. Even if she couldn’t respond concretely to an invitation, for example. It was our responsibility to let the sender of any invitation know that it had been received and that they would be hearing from us shortly as to whether the president and Mrs. Nixon or Mrs. Nixon’s or daughters depending on who the letter was directed to would be able to come for sure. We were never supposed to let a letter linger. And Mrs. Nixon had… She had impeccable standards with regard to these letters. She had been in the homes of people who had received correspondence from the White House across the years. And she knew that some people kept them in frames on their walls or tables. They treasured an official letter from the chief executive or his family. And Mrs. Nixon wanted to make sure that there were obviously no typos. And this is back in the day when we were using typewriters, not computers. So, there could be no mistakes on the letter that was sent. Envelopes were not supposed to have the indentation of a paperclip, and so we actually use small sheets of tissue to bear the weight of a paperclip attached attaching the envelope and letter. And that sounds… It sounds maybe trivial in our time, but it was very important to the overall presentation and arrival of that letter. And Mrs. Nixon treated constituents… Again, every constituent was treated with the highest respect and dignity even down to the answering of a letter. She signed off her letters, too.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about Helen McCain Smith? What was her background? Who was she and why was she so pivotal to the first lady’s press operations?
Linda Hobgood: There were two qualities about Helen McCain Smith. One, she had been part of Mrs. Nixon’s staff almost from the beginning. So, she had an opportunity to see under two previous press secretaries what Mrs. Nixon’s preferences were. And she was able to see how recalibrating in certain circumstances was good for Mrs. Nixon and for the press. And that’s the second consideration. Helen McCain Smith had been part of a news operation, and so she knew the press, she knew members of the Fourth Estate, she liked them, they liked her, and they respected her. And that combination furthered Mrs. Nixon’s aim for treating every member of the press, reporters, correspondence as, first, people and then as reporters. And she did so. And Helen underscored that.
Jonathan Movroydis: How about Connie Stuart?
Linda Hobgood: Connie Stuart was proposed by her husband as the candidate for second press secretary from Mrs. Nixon. I never knew Connie personally, but I am told that she was vivacious and good natured. At the same time, she had high standards for the first lady’s press office. And she was not afraid of telling the West Wing, “This is the way we’re going to operate over on Mrs. Nixon’s East Wing side and we hope you will respect this.” When it came to travel and arrangements and making sure Mrs. Nixon has lead time if she was going to be traveling with the president, that was important. I think, in many ways, the West Wing wasn’t quite as prepared for Mrs. Nixon to be as fully involved, especially on trips as she wanted to be and as President Nixon wanted her to be. And so that was… One of the things where Connie took the initiative and made sure that Mrs. Nixon was well treated by the president’s staff to the extent possible.
Jonathan Movroydis: How about Patti Matson?
Linda Hobgood: Patti was the Deputy Press Secretary under Helen Smith, and she would be, in my mind, probably the closest person to having the expertise. Now that these women are deceased, as anyone, Patti knew Helen Smith. She came to know Mrs. Nixon and she really held to the same high standards for reporting responsibly to the press as soon as possible and understanding the cycles that the press members needed in terms of writing their stories or delivering them on mass media. I think Patti, too, had this… She held to that same standard of treating the press as individuals, human beings with needs of their own. Mrs. Nixon wanted that done and Helen and Patti both respected that and carried out Mrs. Nixon’s wishes.
Jonathan Movroydis: And how aboutGerry Van der Heuvel.
Linda Hobgood: GerryVan der Heuvel, I did not know her well in terms of what I heard once I arrived in the East Wing. And she also did not… She had the shortest term of the three press secretaries. In terms of being the actual press secretary, Helen was press secretary or a Deputy Press Secretary for a longer time. And Connie Stuart, obviously, was the second in the sequence. But Gerry Van der Heuvel was highly respected among the press in Washington. She was a head of the National Women’s press organization. And I think truth be told, she was probably… Oh, I think the best thing to say, is in a transition mode herself, as she moved from press to communicating the first lady to the press. And there were great many things that may have come as a surprise to her because she did not know the Nixons well. She, I think, did an admirable job of trying to serve Mrs. Nixon, but it was, again, a time of change and all three press secretaries were caught up in that time of change, but I think Gerry may have been more so than the other two.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that Mrs. Nixon was often overlooked during the first year of the presidency. She was made of sterner stuff than some of the other first ladies, but not the stuff of hard or breaking news. What do you mean by that?
Linda Hobgood: Mrs. Nixon was not a person of contrivance. She did not covet celebrity. She was of a calm demeanor and disposition. And she was as other centered as any human being I’ve ever known. And just watching her serving from position in the background and getting a chance to see her interact with everyone from older senior citizens to youngsters. She was as gentle and kind and eager to help anyone I have ever seen. You and I are both fully aware that news depends on the unusual and hard news especially. And receptions that end happily, days that end happily ever after are not the stuff of hard news. But Mrs. Nixon’s mission, if you will, was to make as many people feel at home in the White House at ease at receptions whenever she encountered someone. I think one of my most lasting impressions and one of the most endearing is how you would shake or she would shake your hand with both of hers. She would hold your hand in between her own. And she’s not the only person to have done that, but I’ve never seen anyone do it and establish eye contact to such a degree that you felt as though you were the only person in the room and the only one that mattered to Mrs. Nixon right at that moment. And she did it so easily and so readily. Even when there were thousands of people in the room and hundreds waiting in a reception line, she gave you every minute that you deserved and she truly sought to make you comfortable and appreciate it. And that was… It was just… That’s not the stuff of hard news.
Jonathan Movroydis: Right. But she was involved in… Her cause was people. She said that people were her project.
Linda Hobgood: Project. Right.
Jonathan Movroydis: She went on the foreign trips, including the trip to China which was highly visual. She was involved in the legacy of parks program and restoring the White House. Did any of these… Some of these might have not been considered hard news, but were they… How were they eventually conveyed by the press?
Linda Hobgood: Well, for instance, she sought to continue Mrs. Kennedy’s commitment to restoring antiquities in the White House and helped with the help of… Gosh, I think it was [inaudible 00:17:57] and the… Oh, goodness. The name is escaping me at the moment. But she worked with two individuals very closely on restoring Americana in terms of furniture and decor to the White House. And the program had begun with Mrs. Kennedy. The fact that Mrs. Nixon continued it and really extended it during her time, a grateful nation appreciates that kind of thing that she thought through, but it wasn’t a brand new program. As far as people are my project, that was not limited. And Mrs. Nixon intentionally kept it as open-ended as possible. When campus groups were disgruntled, and she went to hear them and be a presence of the administration. For those that needed a listening ear, she was there. When it was senior citizens or when it was children, she was there. Victims of an earthquake in South America, she was at presence and that she sought that. But if you defined it more narrowly, it might have held some appeal as a more specific project, but it wouldn’t have been what Mrs. Nixon sought to accomplish for the administration.
Jonathan Movroydis: What were public perceptions based on her initiatives and based through the press’ lens? What were the American people’s impressions of Mrs. Nixon?
Linda Hobgood: Too many are based on false impressions given in light of, I think, the Watergate controversy and retrospectives that are framed in terms of Watergate. Mrs. Nixon was as ready with a laugh and also as savvy and sensitive on an international scale as any first lady I can imagine. She studied assiduously before she would travel to foreign countries. And she was quite insistent, for instance, that when she visited the combat zone in Vietnam, she wanted to go to the bedsides of the wounded in Vietnam and at Long Binh and she did not savor the idea of a press presence even though that would have probably brought her some very important and perhaps favorable press coverage, but she wanted to go to the soldiers themselves. She wasn’t about having it be appearing on television just for television’s sake. She wanted to get messages from the soldiers and for those who wanted her to contact their loved ones back home. She even would crouch by the bedside just to get names of people that they wanted her to contact. And she did so. And she didn’t want anything to get in the way of that. She was not about the photo opportunity.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Linda Hobgood, She is a contributing author to an upcoming book by Lisa Burns, professor media relations at Quinnipiac University. The book is called “Media Relations and the Modern First Lady: From Jacqueline Kennedy to Melania Trump.” Dr. Hobgood, thank you so much for joining us.
Linda Hobgood: Thank you. Thanks so much.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts on nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.