Happy Birthday, Mrs. Nixon!
Today, Pat Nixon would have turned 99. As was her custom, however, she would have marked the occasion tomorrow – on St. Patrick’s Day. As to why, her father, Will Ryan, once explained it to her brother, Bill: “Well, she was there in the morning, my St. Patrick’s Babe in the morning.”
As I reflect today on Mrs. Nixon’s remarkable life, I find myself remembering the humanitarian mission she led to Peru in June 1970, following a devastating earthquake there. Undoubtedly, that memory is triggered by the terrible news from Japan.
The earthquake that struck Peru on May 31, 1970 devastated that country. At least 50,000 people were killed and as many as 800,000 were left homeless. Because the quake struck hardest in remote areas with little means of communications, word of the full extent of the disaster was slow to reach the outside world.
The United States acted as quickly as it could, both with official assistance from the federal government, as well as with enormous private resources donated by many thousands of concerned Americans. Although relations between our two countries were strained, that did not temper the generosity of our response.
Despite the significant outpouring of assistance, Mrs. Nixon wanted to do more. And she did. Less than a month after the earthquake, she embarked on an unprecedented humanitarian mission, flying to Peru with nine tons of supplies, all privately donated. Within hours of her arrival in Peru, Mrs. Nixon and Peru’s first lady, Consuelo Velasco, boarded a C-135 cargo plane and flew deep into the Peruvian interior, landing on a dirt airstrip in a narrow valley, to deliver the much-needed supplies.
Mrs. Nixon next helicoptered into the areas where some of the greatest destruction had occurred. She spent five hours walking among the wreckage, comforting hundreds of villagers whose loss was complete but who were also already taking about rebuilding. Her genuine concern for the people she met – and for all those who were suffering – deeply moved the people of Peru and their leaders.
In her new biography of Mrs. Nixon, Mary Brennan writes:
Her genuine concern and sympathy did much to ease the tension that had existed between Peru and the United States…An editorial in La Prensa, the main newspaper in Lima, noted the “profound significance” of Pat’s visit. “In her human warmth and identification with the suffering of the Peruvian people,” the editorial continued, she had “gone beyond the norms of international courtesy.” The people of Peru appreciated “the understanding and concern that she demonstrated in our sorrow.”
In that visit, the Peruvian people were warmed by what President Nixon called, “the sunshine of her smile.” So, too, was the Peruvian government. Before she left for home, the president of Peru awarded her the country’s highest decoration, The Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun.
Mrs. Nixon’s smile – and the love that caused it to shine so bright – spoke volumes to the people of Peru, much as it had to countless people here at home and around the world during the course of her public life. No First Lady has ever represented our country with greater warmth, courage, and humility than Pat Nixon.
Tomorrow, on St. Patrick’s Day, many of us will be singing that old familiar Irish song, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” I think the opening lines of the song’s second verse – which are not very widely known – perfectly capture the essence of Will Ryan’s “St. Patrick’s Babe in the morning.” For your smile is a part of the love in your heart,/And it makes even sunshine more bright.
And so it did, and so the memory of it still does.