It was the vice presidency that John Nance Garner invidiously compared to a bucket of warm spit, but the role of first lady of the United States has got to be just as bad. Only Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton notched autonomous accomplishments of historical weight, though Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison also hover in the national pantheon. Sad to say, most presidential spouses — not necessarily through any fault of their own — achieve little of lasting note. Constrained by high-stakes politics and society’s sexism, they can at best champion a safe, domestic cause like literacy or fitness before dissolving into the history books as yet another presidential helpmate.
If first ladies present a challenge to biographers, Pat Nixon is an especially unpromising subject. As Ann Beattie notes in “Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life,” Richard Nixon’s wife of 53 years wrote no memoir, rare among recent first ladies. Not only did Pat Nixon abjure any aspiration to realize independent public attainments, but her values and upbringing trained her always to be courteous, proper, self-effacing and traditional in her demeanor. The opacity of “Plastic Pat” signaled both a rejection of the feminist ideas then sweeping America and, perhaps, the lack of any tantalizing spark within. Beattie calls her “a person I would have done anything to avoid — to the extent she was even part of my consciousness.”
Yet, Beattie insists, Pat Nixon interests her as a writer. The woman’s very inscrutability, her otherness, makes her an inviting subject for the novelist to imagine. (Beattie also implies that Pat Nixon reminds her of her own mother.) And given the psychological acuity Beattie has long brought to her fiction, she might seem just the person to pull this off. Beattie writes of her admiration for “Don DeLillo, entering the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother in ‘Libra,’ and Donald Barthelme’s extraordinary story, ‘Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning.’ ” And yet, for all her psychological prowling, she never quite makes Pat Nixon come alive the way she so deftly does with her fictional creations.
In this rumination — not quite a biography, not quite a novel — Mrs. Nixon emerges, much like the standard popular image, as lonely, inward-looking and long-suffering. Experimenting with form, Beattie renders different chapters of the book in starkly different styles and voices — some in her subject’s, some in Richard Nixon’s, some in a more omniscient tone. In storytelling, Beattie writes, “we are not supposed to digress,” but digress she does, constantly and knowingly. “Such drift seems endemic to writing about the quietly loyal and enigmatic Mrs. Nixon,” she acknowledges.
In one of many provocative excursions into the nature of writing, Beattie proposes this idea: “Fiction is all about covert winks, deliberate stumbles, things happening off the page, allusions that function as scaffolding. Metafiction announces, and inherently questions, itself.” Is it metafiction — something closer to Donald Barthelme’s postmodern jags than the minimalist gems for which she’s best known — that Beattie is after in this book?
I’m not sure, but “Mrs. Nixon” is meta-something. In fact, it’s best when Beattie sets forth her thoughts about other writers, as she does often: Raymond Carver, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Delmore Schwartz, Tennessee Williams, Gish Jen. Like a backstage tour, these riffs on writing take us into the artistic process of someone whose published work seems intricately and carefully crafted. Their relation to Pat Nixon, however, isn’t always easy to discern.
This book could have been a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Tom Stoppard’s play from the viewpoint of two extras in “Hamlet,” or a “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Jean Rhys’s “Jane Eyre” prequel (two books Beattie mentions). But Pat Nixon is ultimately too weak a character to consistently divert our focus from her endlessly fascinating husband. The gravitational pull of his sun is too strong; she floats in the outer reaches of Nixon administration lore like a minor satellite. Thus Beattie winds up falling into the trap of conjuring not only Pat Nixon’s interior life but that of her husband — and inserting Richard Nixon into fiction usually yields cringe-inducing results, as works by Gore Vidal and Philip K. Dick, among many others, can attest. (Two admirable exceptions: Mark Maxwell’s delightful “Nixoncarver,” a story of our 37th president as though written by the short-story master; and Philip Roth’s parody “Our Gang.”)
“What you will read,” Beattie tells us, “is based on research.” But the books she cites most often — musty relics from the 1960s and ’70s — lack the authority of history, and their regular appearances serve mainly as stand-ins for the easy assumptions of that time. (Who relies anymore on Jonathan Schell’s arch, dated New Yorker dispatches?) I have never believed that novels should emulate history — with diligent investigation undertaken to show a superficial verisimilitude — but in the challenge of capturing the elusive Pat Nixon, insight might well have been gleaned not only from the large literature on Nixon published in the last three decades but also from the now-abundant scholarship on women, politics and the 1970s. Beattie does offer some perceptive, well-turned observations — comparing, for example, Nixon’s efforts to drum up supportive letters for his policies to “flashing an ‘applause’ sign for the studio audience.” But on the whole, given its inherently political topic, “Mrs. Nixon” shows surprisingly little interest in politics.
Writing great fiction is hard. Historians and other academics occasionally leverage their stature into contracts for a novel, but most of them fail artistically. We’re frequently intrigued, however, by a novelist holding forth on politics, as if he or she has access to some special insight unavailable to journalists, historians and political scientists. But we should remember, particularly in our age of easy opinion, of pundit TV and content farms and Web-wide blogorrhea, that writing about history and politics — and writing about it well — is hard too.
David Greenberg, an associate professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of, among other works, “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.”