From the archive: the controversial influence of Rosalynn Carter, Jimmy’s wife, 1980

While Jimmy Carter’s much-maligned presidency is finally being revised, there was never any doubt about the influence of his wife, Rosalynn Carter, profiled by Anthony Holden in the issue of 3 August 1980 (‘How the Steel Magnolia blossomed in the White House’).

‘She revels in her reputation as America’s most political First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt,’ wrote Holden, ‘even as, in Time magazine’s judgment, the second most powerful person in the United States.’

There was nothing new about a first lady having influence, but it was the extent of it that had become controversial – ‘that someone unelected to public office should hold such sway over the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy’.

It was something her husband was so conscious of that ‘last autumn, after Camp David, the President made his wife stay home for a few months because she was getting too much publicity’.

Holden quotes a White House insider: ‘We often take things to her first, and ask her to put in a good word. And she’s a great second line of defence, to get him to change his mind about something.’

Though referring to her as ‘a hard, calculating and rather frosty First Lady who has earned herself the sobriquet of “the steel magnolia”’, Holden allowed that she had ‘worked energetically and effectively in the cause of mental health, but she has also become an overtly political figure’. Carter herself admitted: ‘I am in the eye of history. I know I have influence, and I enjoy it.’

Holden contrasted Nancy Reagan ‘watching her husband’s performance with a look of drop-jawed idolatry’ with Rosalynn Carter ‘paying her husband compliments so fulsome as to transcend the realms of mere embarrassment’. Though, of course, it was Nancy who would further transcend such realms with her facile ‘Just say no’ anti-drugs message and use of astrology to rearrange the president’s calendar.