Before Hillary Clinton, There Was Rosalynn Carter

When Americans look back and take stock of their most impressive first ladies, they rarely think of Rosalynn Carter.

In a 2020 poll that asked historians and other experts to rank first ladies on a score of exemplary characteristics, Mrs. Carter came in ninth, trailing Dolley Madison, Betty Ford and Jackie Kennedy. When Apple TV+ produced “First Ladies,” a series of six documentary portraits, in 2020, it ignored Mrs. Carter entirely. So too did Showtime’s 2022 drama series “The First Lady.” Both, again, featured Mrs. Ford, who only served a partial term, and whose primary contribution to White House history was her candid persona. While Mrs. Ford’s personal charm and willingness to confront Republican pieties made her a star, she made no lasting change to the institution of the East Wing itself; the only way to understand the first lady entertainment complex’s posthumous preference for Mrs. Ford over Mrs. Carter is that she is the first lady equivalent of Princess Diana, a glamorous, tragic figure whose personal agonies produce riveting television.Mrs. Carter — cheerful, stable, staid — makes for less compelling drama, but much better lessons in wielding power from that singular office.

We are in the midst of a re-evaluation of the Carter presidency — long considered a failure — prompted in part by a celebrated 2021 biography that declared Mr. Carter the “most misunderstood president of the last century.” But his first lady, so far, has merited no second look; perhaps, on the occasion of her death, it is finally time to give Mrs. Carter her due.

Only two first ladies in the 20th century can claim to have transformed the institution. Eleanor Roosevelt shaped America’s highest expectations of a first lady — but it was Rosalynn Carter who built a fully staffed Office of the First Lady to match her activist ambitions, creating a power base not just for herself but for all of her successors.

Serving as an equal partner to her husband, the president, advancing a mental health policy agenda, brokering peace between Israel and Egypt: These were high aspirations. Mrs. Carter had the canny instincts to know that a player who courts influence requires a court. She hired a seasoned Washington journalist as press secretary, set up a separate office led by a highly trained adviser — the director of projects — to handle policy and brought on a chief of staff to oversee it all. She assembled a highly competent team and moved the first lady’s personal office from the residence to the East Wing itself to join them.

Mrs. Carter’s charismatic press secretary, Mary Hoyt, led the fight for decent East Wing salaries, despite stiff opposition. If Mrs. Carter wanted staffers capable of preparing her to testify before Congress and lead a diplomatic tour across Latin America discussing hard policy with government leaders, the White House would need to pay them in accordance with their experience. But it was a time of austerity. President Carter was demanding sacrifice from all Americans and turning down the heat in the White House to cut costs. Ms. Hoyt wore cashmere mittens while typing, to keep her fingers from freezing.

So many Americans wrote in to complain about the office’s staff members getting paid anything at all that Ms. Hoyt prepared a form letter in response. With Mrs. Carter’s backing, she managed to get raises for herself and for most of her colleagues, and also extracted a reserved parking spot next to the vice president’s as a perk. (Up until the Ford administration, East Wing staff members had been chauffeured to work in a government town car, a little privilege that softened the paltry pay.) This remunerated, professionalized, sizable Office of the First Lady that Mrs. Carter established helped her pursue her agenda. It also created the model for the modern East Wing as an office with the stature and capacity to wield profound influence as an arena for setting policy, shaping the presidency and shifting cultural attitudes.

At the time, though, Mrs. Carter’s achievements were largely dismissed. Late ’70s press coverage mocked her as “Rosé Rosalynn,” a dour Southern Baptist who canceled hard liquor, dancing and French cooking at White House dinners — all seen as not elegant or remnants of Kennedy-era decadence — and allowed her staffers to shuffle around in clogs. Feminists like Gloria Steinem faulted Mrs. Carter for not being sufficiently outré in her activism. “I am disappointed in her altogether,” complained Ms. Steinem in 1978. Even women reporters like United Press International’s Helen Thomas, an old White House hand who had witnessed far lazier and media-hostile first ladies, were unimpressed. “There’s no ferment, no mystique,” she wrote. “She creates neither love nor hate.”

Neither America nor Washington was quite ready for Mrs. Carter at the time. A careless classism and Georgetown-set pettiness ran through much of the D.C.-focused society gossip and political reporting about her. (Nancy Reagan was careful to cultivate the Katharine Graham-led Washington social elite to pre-empt the same fate.) While Mrs. Carter was less contemptuous of politics than her husband and strategic enough to know that lofty goals required politicking, she, too, came from a small town in Georgia and had a slightly defensive air of humble superiority. It kept her from doing the image crafting and social brokering that first ladyhood requires. It was only a political outsider like Andy Warhol, who visited the Carters in Plains, Ga., to do a portrait of Mr. Carter after he won the Democratic nomination, who could appreciate her steel. “She’s the tough one, Rosalynn,” he told a colleague after the trip. “She wears the pantsuit. Polyester.”

Less Washington-centric press accounts from Mrs. Carter’s time in office acknowledged what she had managed to achieve, but with an undercurrent of ambivalence — a Newsweek columnist referred to her as “Mrs. President”; on the occasion of one speech, a piece in The Atlantic described her as having “the air of a child at her first piano recital.” It was only years later that mental health would emerge as a national health crisis, and by that time Mrs. Carter’s early efforts to both forge a care agenda and combat stigma were largely forgotten. The legacy of the Carter administration itself was neglected for decades, and only recently has generated renewed interest.

My own interest in Rosalynn Carter was piqued in childhood, when in Iranian émigré circles her husband was blamed for haranguing the Shah of Iran on his human rights record, emboldening the anti-Shah Iranian student movement in the United States, and thus shepherding that great disaster, the Iranian revolution of 1979. In my mind, the name Jimmy Carter, pronounced in a Persian accent, still sounds like a curse word.

When I grew up, became a journalist and investigated Mr. Carter’s efforts to end the Iranian hostage crisis, I was startled to learn that Mrs. Carter’s position amid the turmoil had been hawkish. She had advocated mining the harbors of the Persian Gulf and cutting Iran’s oil exports to U.S. allies. Ultimately, she knew that acting judiciously would cost her husband a second term. “Jimmy could have blown up Tehran and been re-elected,” she wrote in her memoir of the night of his electoral defeat. “Yes, I was bitter. And so was everyone else in the room. But I was the only one who admitted it.” Mr. Carter rejected her counsel. But Mrs. Carter’s directness about wanting to win badly enough to have pushed for confrontation gets to the very heart of her gritty political instincts.

In the obituaries published this week, Mrs. Carter’s consequence, and her singular role in creating the modern East Wing, are finally being recognized. For a young generation that seems to scarcely remember her (but does register Eleanor Roosevelt), it matters to know that Hillary Clinton was not the only other strong activist first lady of the last century.

The received wisdom of the Clinton East Wing is that any ambitious first lady risks provoking a devastating backlash. But Rosalynn Carter and her aides ran a powerhouse, at a time when women’s political participation in formal politics was just emerging. If she wasn’t beloved, she also wasn’t deeply polarizing; more important than any measure of popularity, she managed to achieve her key goals.

Any parallels between the two women are necessarily imprecise: They came into office at different times, under different circumstances, with different marriages and different personalities. But remembering Mrs. Carter’s legacy is important because what it illustrates is, simply, possibility. Any narrative of what a modern first lady can or can’t be that leaves her out is incomplete.

Azadeh Moaveni is an associate professor of journalism at New York University. She is working on a book about the East Wing.

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