Much has been stated and written in recent days about how Rosalynn Carter “redefined” the role of first lady.
How she offered policy advice to her husband, President Jimmy Carter. How she kept an active office in the East Wing of the White House. How she was never afraid to tell the president where he messed up.
Was her role unprecedented? Not really.
Plenty of first ladies who followed her into the White House have demonstrated the same level of political moxie. Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton come to mind. Remember how Mrs. Clinton went immediately from being first lady to the U.S. Senate, where she served from 2001 until Barack Obama tapped her to become secretary of state in 2009.
Prior to Rosalynn Carter, though, two first ladies stand out as being more than just White House window dressing.
Eleanor Roosevelt is one. She sat at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s right hand during his three terms in office; yes, FDR was elected four times as POTUS, but he died only a month into his fourth term. She clearly offered policy advice and later would become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Kennedy administration.
Another first lady? Edith Wilson. She married President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 after his first wife died. In 1919, President Wilson suffered a severe stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to perform his presidential duties. Edith Wilson took over many of his responsibilities, screening his visitors, correspondence, and documents.
Mrs. Wilson served as a shadow president, conducting matters of statecraft even though her husband remained alive, but unable to do his job.
I don’t recall a time during the Carter administration, which ran from 1977 until 1981, when Mrs. Carter’s policies actually were seen as dominant. Media reporting on her role as a key adviser, if memory serves, was fairly discreet, although it clearly was reported to the public that Rosalynn Carter played a role in shaping many of her husband’s policy decisions.
Of course, that role bent some D.C. noses out of shape. Some “traditionalists” seemed to believe that first ladies needed only to plan White House meals and organize events such as the annual Easter egg hunt.
The way I saw it then was: Any president needs an adviser who can tell him the unvarnished truth and speak candidly when he messes up. That President Carter was married to that individual only made her role more effective.
Rosalynn Carter was an extraordinary woman who carved out a special place in our nation’s glorious presidential history.
She is at peace now. God bless her.