Rosalynn Carter is not at ease with power. Her image as a steel magnolia, a tough southern belle, has wilted. Her role as first lady—a silly and saccharine title—has become ill-defined and uncertain. But after two years as a disappointment to many, she is about to reemerge as a figure of substantive influence at the top.
The president is now gearing up for the 1980 elections, and as a hidden persuader, his wife has few equals.
It is not always possible to measure Rosalynn Carter’s political clout but according to Hamilton Jordan, the president’s No. 1 aide and an individual not given to flattery, it can be considerable. “If I think the president is off in the wrong direction over something and can’t persuade him to change his mind,” he has said, “then I try to get Rosalynn on my side. That usually does it.”
Besides, she does attend every single cabinet meeting, something no president’s wife has ever done, and discusses issues later with cabinet members.
Ironically, her greatest strength (total and absolute commitment to her husband, everything and anything he stands for) is also perceived by Washington watchers to be her greatest drawback. The packagers and the programmers of American politics have tried to project Mrs. Carter as a modern-day Eleanor Roosevelt—freespirited and independent of thought. A woman with significant social causes of her own to fight for and further. But it just isn’t so. She might well be the most active woman in the White House for 40 years but her motives should not be confused with those of the crusading Eleanor. Instead, the evidence is that she is devoted to only one project—backing her husband at all costs.
That understood, it is nevertheless a task she performs with style and grace under pressure. Never ruffled, never riled,
she has an acute natural sense of the political that lies at the real base of her influence, as adviser on the policies and personalities most likely to keep Jimmy Carter in power.
White House strategists are worried
now about how to portray Mrs. Carter in the months to come. The problem is that she has no clear public image. Jackie Kennedy was known for her chic, her taste; Lady Bird Johnson had schemes to beautify the nation; Patricia Nixon, though hardly dynamic, was sold as a housewife and helpmate; Betty Ford was known for her candor, her courage. But mention the name of Rosalynn Carter and many people draw a blank.
Though worthy, the issues she has chosen to spend most time on—mentalhealth care, the problems of the old, urban
renewal—aren’t “sexy.” They don’t attract much media attention. And she has not lived up to the promise of the last campaign to be a highly visible, vice-presidential sort of figure boosting public morale, inspiring and invigorating the nation to do good works. “Rosalynn was an outstanding campaigner so we assumed she would continue to be outstanding as first lady,” says one former White House staffer. “I don’t think it’s her fault, or anybody’s, but this picture we nurtured somehow didn’t develop. From the first day it was important for us to show her doing great things. She wanted it. I thought, she’s the woman of the ’70s, this beautiful, terrific lady who’s concerned about humanitarian causes. She has this close, loving relationship with her husband. The question is, are we right in expecting any first lady to be more than what she is? It put her in the position of having to measure up to her advance billing. Maybe Rosalynn is trapped by the great expectations.”
At 51, she is a shy, determined, not particularly wellread, not well educated but intelligent woman. She is also undeniably handsome with her high cheekbones, a smile almost as ready as her husband’s and shining eyes given more sparkle by a cosmetic operation to “tuck” her heavy eyelids last year. In all, she is appealing for what she is, not for what her husband’s advisers want her to be. And in the coming months that appeal will be put to the political test as she travels the U.S. extensively to promote the president.
Left to be herself Rosalynn Carter is no star, but she comes over as generous and well-meaning. A case in point came up last month during the three-day state visit to Mexico. Up until nearly the end of her first year in the White House, Mrs. Carter usually wore simple drip-dry, offthe-peg clothes, many of them, she boasted, bought on sale. Now she travels with a hairdresser and once spent $4,000
in a day on designer dresses in New York. But she remains essentially simple of taste, no more conscious of her appearance on a busy day than the average housewife. That was particularly evident during the Mexican visit while she was in close contact with that country’s first lady, Carmen López Portillo. A Latin version of Elizabeth Taylor, she keeps a makeup parlor in her mammoth limousine where others keep a bar. Her spectacular clothes and travelling court of aides and security men make her appearances into royal shows. Not long ago she spent $16,000 one morning in New York on makeup and dresses. Her purchases included 90 pots of eyeshadow in a rainbow of shades.
After watching the two first ladies walking round a beautiful 16th-century square in Mexico City, one Washington reporter, a close observer of women in politics, said: “It was fascinating. Rosalynn kissed babies, reached out to touch wizened peasant women, working the crowd like she was running for Congress. Carmen stood back, rarely touching anyone, just being there. Rosalynn genuinely sees herself as just one of the people.”
Nor was the Mexico trip Mrs. Carter’s only major venture into the public view last month. She caused quite a stir on Capitol Hill by testifying as “honorary
chairwoman” of the President’s Commission on Mental Health before Senator Edward Kennedy’s Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research. With a good, safe, non-controversial issue, pleading in a nervous southern drawl for more money to help the mentally ill, it was all praiseworthy if uninspired. In an effort to make the most of it, the White House newsshapers let it be known that Mrs. Carter was the first president’s wife to appear before a congressional committee since Eleanor Roosevelt testified in 1945 about local affairs in the District of Columbia.
Mrs. Carter will likely be the first president’s wife to do a lot of things before she leaves the White House. Her travel schedule is such, her work load so heavy, that some speculate she tries to make up with manual labor for what she lacks in forceful imagination. She will go anywhere and meet anyone if it will get a vote for “Jimm-eh.” This last fact couldn’t have been more dramatically illustrated during the last two months than it was by two acutely embarrassing photographs turned up by the press. In her trips last year to Democratic fund-raising parties she shook hands and posed for the camera with Rev. Jim Jones, who later led his People’s Temple sect members into mass suicide in Guyana, and John Gacy, former Democratic precinct captain in Illinois, now accused of murdering 32 young men after having sexual relations with them.
Daughter Amy, 12, (a “late surprise,” in Rosalynn’s words) also takes a certain amount of Mrs. Carter’s time. (There are also three sons—Jack, 31, Chip, 28 and Jeff, 26.) Mother and daughter take violin lessons and practise together these days in one of the official mansion’s hideaway rooms. “You should hear the noise, it’s just terrible,” says Mrs. Carter. Perhaps the greatest family crisis since the president came to power came when son Chip found that his celebrity status as a Carter made him a favorite at parties throughout the capital and he and his wife, Caron, drifted apart. They are contemplating divorce.
For obvious reasons, like job security, most White House staffers close to Mrs. Carter refuse to talk for the record. Said one: “Rosalynn is a sweet, compassionate woman who is hard as nails underneath, a classical southern woman. But she hasn’t come through at all to the public. There’s no image of her out across the country. We aren’t seeing her as an involved and dynamic lady, nor are we seeing her as a compassionate woman. Maybe you can’t have both, but right now we’re not getting either.”
How does Mrs. Carter see the image problem herself? In a recent interview she said: “I’m doing the things that come nat-
urally to me. The things I’m interested in. I have a feeling of fulfilment, to a certain extent. I’m a very private person. I like to have time by myself and with my family. That’s important to me.
“It might be my fault that people expect more of me because I talked in the campaign about things I wanted to do and I think I built up expectations. I wanted to work with the mentally afflicted, with the elderly, so I think people expect me to do these things. And when people tell us they’re unsexy subjects, well, they need to be done. These things that I’m interested in are seen as dull and boring and you can’t get the newspapers to cover them. I never tried to be anyone’s heroine. I never have worried about image. I never have tried to create an image.”
Born Rosalynn Smith in 1928, daughter of a poor seamstress in Plains, Georgia, she attended a local community college before leaving to work in a beauty parlor and earn much needed cash to keep up the home. At 19 she married Carter, then a young naval officer, and left the South for life as a service wife. But when his father died in 1953 they returned to Plains to run the peanut business. In those years Rosalynn is said to have fought the hardest battle of her life— holding her own with her husband’s domineering mother “Miz Lillian.” It was at this time that she really came into her own as Jimmy’s intimate adviser.
When a visiting editor asked Carter last fall just how much influence his wife had, the president replied: “Rosalynn is an extremely knowledgeable and sensitive person. She has a very strong will. I think she understands the consciousness of the American people and their attitudes, perhaps better than I do. She is even involved in foreign affairs.”
Says Rosalynn: “People have written that I’m Jimmy’s greatest adviser. I’m not. But I talk to him about all the things he’s trying to do. He trusts my opinion. I can talk to him about what I feel ought to be done. He always listens.”
Last summer, when Carter’s popularity was dropping dangerously low in the polls, it was Rosalynn who took direct action. She invited media whiz-kid Gerry Rafshoon up to Washington and persuaded him to join the White House staff as head of communications. He has taken Carter’s image problems in hand and by carefully managing news events—involving himself in the timing of international affairs so they benefit Carter the most—he has improved the president’s public standing remarkably. Significantly Rosalynn Carter told the image maker that she was not concerned about her own poor press. It is not important to her. She doesn’t need public recognition. All the support she needs she gets from her husband. &
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