“I find myself in the eye of history,” Rosalynn Carter once said, and it was true in 1979 as never before. As Jimmy Carter slogged through the year battered by polls questioning his leadership, the First Lady emerged clearly as a powerful force in his administration—a behind-the-scenes presence in his speeches, his political strategy and, some worried, in his policies. Recently Mrs. Carter, 52, met with PEOPLE Managing Editor Richard B. Stolley and Correspondent Clare Crawford-Mason in her East Wing office for the most extensive interview she has given during her years in the White House. The concluding installment will appear in the January 7 issue of PEOPLE.
You have been criticized for your role as adviser to your husband. The charge is that you’re just too powerful, that you have more influence on him than any person ought to have. Does it bother you?
I know that I don’t have that much influence, and I would like people to know the true situation. But how do you get it across to them? You can either not do anything public and stay out of sight or go and do those things that you think are important. I’m not one to just sit back, and the things that I’m working on—mental health, the elderly, community programs, the Cambodian relief program—these things are important. If I can be helpful in these areas, I feel the responsibility to do something.
The feeling is that you do all of those things very well, but you also get involved in substantive policy decisions. What about that?
Well, I could stay home from Cabinet meetings and maybe they wouldn’t say that, but I don’t want to stay home from Cabinet meetings. I like to know what’s going on. I have to meet with people and have press conferences. They ask me questions about what’s going on. It’s not just that I want to be informed, though I do. I’ve just always worked with Jimmy this way, ever since he ran for governor in 1966. I needed to know how he stood on issues. We used to study together, we made up issue papers together. Now that he is the President, am I supposed not to be interested? I don’t advise him on things that I don’t know anything about. I don’t tell him what to do about inflation because I’m not an economist. I don’t understand anything about it. Or energy. I might say what I think we can do to get our points across to people. But I don’t advise him on policy. I am not Jimmy’s chief adviser or the second most important person in the United States.
Who do you think is?
I don’t know. I don’t think about it. It’s not important to me. Jimmy has confidence in me to do the things I want to do and that he thinks I can do. If I was worried about what people were going to say about everything I did, would do nothing.
Your family has been through some real shocks—Billy’s alcoholism, Chip’s broken marriage, problems with Jeff and Annette. Do you think these problems are connected with the pressures of being in the White House?
Every family has problems. I think our problems probably would have happened whether Jimmy was in the White House or not. Being in public life has actually drawn our family closer together. We worked as a family in the governor’s election—the boys took off from college, and we went all over the state. When we won, it was something we did together as a family that Jimmy could not have done, we didn’t think, by himself. We felt important.
How do you think all the public attention has affected the family?
When people are watching you, you feel kind of isolated. You’ve got problems that other families don’t have, so it draws you together. We’ve been through so many really bad things. When we were for integration in Plains and Americus in 1962-63, we were isolated in that community. At the church nobody voted to let the blacks in except our family.
How did this affect your children?
In 1964 we supported Lyndon Johnson, who was an integrationist, and Chip would put on his “I am a Democrat” button every day and come home from school with his shirt pocket torn off. One day Chip was in his room crying. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “In glee club today we stood up to sing and somebody pulled the chair out from under me and I sat on the floor. I went out in the tall weeds and ripped my Democratic sticker off my notebook, and I’m never going to be a Democrat again.”
How has your family survived?
Being out of favor with the people around you nurtures a kind of closeness, and you develop confidence about yourself. If you feel like you’re right, so what if they disagree? The next morning Chip put his “I am a Democrat” button on and went back to school. We’ve had this kind of pressure for as long as I can remember.
Visitors to the Oval Office say the President has aged. Have you noticed it?
Yes, I think he’s aged, but the only time Jimmy looks bad to me is when he loses a lot of weight. Last December or so, he and Dr. Lukash [the White House physician] decided they both needed to lose some weight. They got out the charts and started running. In about two weeks Jimmy lost nine pounds and Dr. Lukash lost 11—and Jimmy looked awful for a while. When you lose that much weight you look old and tired until your body adjusts. Then about two or three months ago up at Camp David they both decided they were going to lose five more pounds. I fuss at them all the time and say, “But you both looked better when you weighed a little bit more.” It’s runners. They’re supposed to be thin. I think he looks good now.
You are very heavily scheduled most of the time. Don’t you ever wake up and want to stay in bed or play hookey with Amy?
Of course, often. Sometimes you just want to stay in bed for another hour. Yesterday I got up at 5 o’clock and went to New Hampshire, but that’s part of my life. It’s important to me to make time for Amy. I usually wake her up every morning at 7 o’clock and we have breakfast, then we practice violin from 8 to 8:30 and she goes to school. I take her to her violin lesson every Wednesday afternoon. We ride 20 or 25 minutes in the car and we have really good conversations. I feel like I get to know her. It’s important for her to have some stability in her life and to know that we care about her in the midst of all this rushing around.
Can you get a way from the pressure?
When I get in the elevator at the White House to go up to the second floor I’m at home. I put on my dungarees and read, mostly light novels and mysteries for relaxation. Jimmy and I do some kind of exercise almost every day. We run around the yard or play tennis or bowl. Just forget the pressures for a while. There is no pretense on that second floor. Up there we’re a family. The staff never comes up there, my staff or Jimmy’s staff—nobody that I wouldn’t ordinarily have in my home. We can enjoy the time together.
It has been reported that you had minor cosmetic surgery before the inauguration. Is it true, and would you recommend it to others?
Yes, I had some eye surgery back in ’71 or ’72, before I knew Jimmy was going to run. It was medical. I had a sinus problem. But I would recommend it to anybody. I think feeling good has a lot to do with what you can do as a person. It just helps your whole attitude. So I’m for facelifts or eyelifts or anything that makes you feel good about yourself.
In the January 7 issue, Mrs. Carter talks other dreams as a newly wed, her frustrations as a First Lady and mother—and the hazards of being a political wife.