Rosalynn Carter





The story goes that the Carters moved into the White House and began arranging personal items. Somebody on the White House staff asked to speak to the new president and First Lady for a minute. What, the staffer asked, do the Carters like to eat? What kind of meals would you all like on a regular basis? Rosalynn Carter started ticking off different dishes. Mr. President added a few of the things he liked. The White House employee, after taking diligent notes, exclaimed: Why, that’s what we feed the servants! LBJ notwithstanding, it was unusual to have Southerners in the White House in those days. As much trouble as James Earl Carter Jr. had in office, the bright spot of that presidency—like most presidencies—was the First Lady. They called her the “closest adviser” to Jimmy Carter, yet scandal, disappointment and later bitterness never seemed to stick to her. How in the world does a body become the most trusted and closest adviser to a president, yet never get mud on her shoes? Answer: Real Southern grace. Not the fake kind so at hand today. They say she was neck-deep in politics, mostly behind the scenes, so much so that she had to actually tell the press one day that she wasn’t running the government. But for those of us old enough to remember, did anybody harshly criticize her before, during or after that presidency? We remember Nancy Reagan getting guff about the dresses she wore, the Just Say No campaign, astrology, etc. (“The Reagans were so la-di-da. Especially her.”—P.J. O’Rourke) But Rosalynn Carter, early in the Carter presidency, declared that she wasn’t going to be a traditional first lady, and was going to be a partner in the White House. (The administration sent her to Latin America in 1977 to tell dictators there that the president meant it when he talked about human rights. And would withhold military aid to prove it.) She sat in on Cabinet meetings. She had her own mental health agenda. Time magazine called her the second-most powerful person in the United States. But she was so dignified and poised that even “Saturday Night Live” couldn’t touch her. She was the original Steel Magnolia. According to Scott Kaufman, who wrote a bio of Rosalynn Carter, at one low point in the Carter presidency, when all was crashing down, the First Lady was tied for the most admired woman in the world. Tied with Mother Teresa. The former First Lady died Sunday at 96. That’s unfortunate, because the world—even American politics—could use more just like her.