She represented the president at the inaugurations of new Bolivian and Ecuadorian presidents, at the funeral of Pope Paul VI, and greeted Pope John Paul II on her husband’s behalf on his first visit to America in 1979. The same year when Cambodian refugees, fleeing persecution by the Khmer Rouge, began pouring over the border into Thailand, she was instrumental in urging the appointment of a co-ordinator to oversee the UN relief effort and in prompting the creation of a central clearing house for all donated aid. She herself raised millions of dollars for the cause and persuaded her husband to increase national quotas for refugees.
But she ranged more widely in a way that provoked criticism that she was straying outside the accepted confines of her role. In 1977 she undertook one of the most overtly political international missions ever assumed by a First Lady, touring Jamaica, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela as her husband’s personal representative, and holding meetings with political leaders on issues including human rights, arms reduction, beef exports, drug trafficking, nuclear energy and weaponry. In 1979, it was her influence that persuaded Carter to order an embargo on Iranian oil, after the taking of American hostages in Iran.
Less kindly sectors of the Washington media did not buy into her folksy charm, noting that while she professed a lack of interest in fashion, she had had a face lift, and pointing out that this “ordinary” wife and mother had the biggest personal staff of any First Lady. (It was during her tenure that the federal government formally recognised the role as an official position, albeit one undefined by the US Constitution, when automatic congressional appropriation was enacted for her office.) Nor did they forget to remind her of the occasion when she slipped into Vice-President Walter Mondale’s chair at a cabinet meeting, when he was absent.
If Rosalynn Carter was guilty of the sin of hubris, she was quickly brought down to earth when her husband suffered a shattering defeat in the 1980 presidential election. With the president confined to the White House during the Iranian hostage crisis, she registered his candidacy in the New Hampshire primary and toured the country making policy speeches on his behalf throughout the 1980 primary season. In the presidential election, she warned large rallies of the dangers of electing Carter’s Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. But all to no avail.