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A First Lady Finds Her Own Way

By Jimmy Carter

This article appeared in the Jan. 25, 1996, edition of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

One of the most challenging, difficult, controversial and sensitive positions in America is that of first lady. Public interest in the wife of a president is intense, and expectations are high.

Although my wife, Rosalynn, didn't have an independent professional career, she was a full partner in all our farming, business and political affairs, and she was always a key player in political strategy meetings.

There are no legally prescribed duties of the first lady, but she is endowed with almost unlimited access to influential people, interest groups, members of Congress and the news media. Traditionally, she is expected to use this influence for some worthy purpose, but always in a proper and demure manner. Regardless of her professional and personal qualifications, she risks condemnation if she is too forthright in adopting projects that are deemed suitable for male officials to address.

The first lady will almost certainly be involved in shaping political strategy. A heavily burdened leader must have a few associates who are totally loyal, with whom he can share the most sensitive questions. Naturally, his wife is a top choice.

With the exception of a few secrets involving foreign policy and military weaponry, I shared almost all problems and questions with Rosalynn. In fact, we met in the Oval Office for regular weekly luncheons devoted exclusively to public affairs.

The Oval Office is intimidating. Some lifetime friends became almost inarticulate when they visited me there, and top staff members and Cabinet officers were sometimes reluctant to discuss unpleasant issues with me. Quite often, particularly when personnel issues were involved, they went to Rosalynn, and she would then find a good time to broach the subject with me.

An unrecognized fact is the importance among foreign leaders of any personal contact with a member of the American first family. During my first year in office I met with 68 heads of state. That same year, we were under urgent pressure from Latin Americans to learn more about my policy toward the region. Since I couldn't find time to visit all of them, we decided that Rosalynn would go to a few key countries to discuss the most important issues.

She was thoroughly briefed, and the leaders knew she had the ear of the president. They were delighted to have her represent me when they saw that she was intensely interested in their problems and that diplomatic niceties did not keep her from addressing them bluntly and directly.

But there was a storm of criticism from the Washington news media. When she decided to attend Cabinet meetings to stay abreast of what our administration was doing, some reporters almost had apoplexy.

Performing under microscopic scrutiny, members of the first family do make mistakes. We were forced to spend a small fortune on legal fees and hundreds of hours in researching old records to refute false allegations involving our political associates, our family and the use of campaign funds before assuming office. Our truthful explanations just tended to perpetuate the controversies.

I see a lot of parallels between our experiences and those involving other strong and active first ladies, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton.

The fact is, all these women have rendered great service to our nation. Some have not been able to walk the political high wire between serving effectively and pleasing the American public and the White House press corps.

We can be thankful that most first ladies have chosen to ignore the fault-finding and continue to serve our country as dedicated and effective volunteers.

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