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. [Continue reading…]