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A touch of class


PAT Nixon stood dutifully there in the receiving line. The pale, delicate face seemed stiffened by the hundreds of receptions White House protocol had imposed on her. On her right, the president looked stiff, too, and no wonder: This reception was for newspaper editors, a breed which seldom treated him kindly. Above the pained presidential grin there gleamed a couple of drops of the trade-mark perspiration.

By far the crispest-looking of the three -- a shimmering blaze of blue and red, shot through with gold stripes and buttons -- was the rigid young Marine whose duty was to announce the guests, one by nervous one.

"Mrs. Daniel Mahoney!" the Marine called out in a tone easily heard in Dupont Circle and maybe in Philadelphia.

Well, it wasn't Mrs. Daniel Mahoney at all. That was a lie. Mrs. Daniel Mahoney was my daughter Brucie, freshly flustered off the train from boarding school in Virginia. When Dan and Jean Mahoney had to catch an early plane to Dayton, Ohio, where Dan was editor of the Daily News, he offered me his reception tickets. I took them, then telephoned Brucie to join her mother and me at the White House.

In the taxi from the station there ensued a frenzied, squealing shift from austere school uniform to something pale blue and frilly, something held fit for presidential scrutiny. The last panty button buttoned, the last zipper mercifully closed just as the taxi pulled up to the White House, Brucie was composed, the very mistress of the occasion.

Then the glittering Marine presented her to Richard Nixon. "Eeeeee," she said, enunciating eloquently.

The presidential gaze swept down upon her. The Nixon eyes -- shadowed, it seemed probable, with variegated memories of Helen Gahagan Douglas, of Alger Hiss, of Hubert Humphrey -- appeared to stumble momentarily at Brucie's blue frills. Had he discerned the hidden truth? No, there arose the seasoned old pol's trained resilience. In a sort of round-house swing, the presidential right hand flowed from shoulder level to hand level. The lips drew back. The eyebrows raised. The voice boomed out a full Nixon baritone:

"Well, how do you do, Mrs. Mahoney?"

Brucie wasn't to be intimidated.

"Eeeeee," she repeated.

Grandly, as if he had just listened to a long-awaited affirmation of administration policy, the president responded:

"Yes! Yes, indeed!" And swung to his left.

"Pat, I want you to meet Mrs. Mahoney."

For a moment, Pat Nixon didn't say a word. She stared at 17-year-old Brucie. A tiny smile softened the lips. The smile widened.

"Mrs. Mahoney, I'm delighted to meet you," she finally said. "Now tell me, Mrs. Mahoney, what grade are you in at school?"

Life itself surged back into Brucie. In an instant her color changed from deathly gray to healthy, vigorous pink.

"Ninth grade, M'am," she said. "Ninth grade!"

Pat Nixon was delighted, perhaps for the first time in a month of stultifying receptions.

"Well, listen, honey," she said, "why don't you and I just step over there for a few minutes and have a little talk?"

Which is what they did. Talk about school, talk about games, talk about boys. Pat Nixon pointed out she had two girls of her own. Oh, really? Brucie hadn't known that. And so on, for maybe five minutes. Then Pat Nixon said she'd better get back in the line. They said goodbye, shook hands and parted. Brucie walked off, eyes lit up.

Pat Nixon didn't have to do that, but she did. Jack Kennedy once complained, privately but condescendingly, that Dick Nixon didn't have any class. Pat, who died the other day, was different.

Bradford Jacobs is the retired editor of The Evening Sun editorial pages.

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