Rosalynn Carter's role as political adviser

Rosalynn Carter's role as political adviser

In his oral history, Bert Lance said she was a voice of political judgment

In May, 1982, Bert Lance, onetime director of the Office of Management and Budget, conducted an oral history interview as part of the Miller Center's Jimmy Carter Presidential Oral History Project.

In this excerpt from the interview, Lance, who was one of President Carter's closest confidantes, asserts that Rosalynn Carter was one of the two most important political thinkers in Carter’s White House. She was a voice of political judgment for a president who usually wanted to put politics off to the side when he was making policy.  

Bert Lance:  I think that if you went back to the people in the White House, they would fault [President Carter] heavily [for being kind of anti-political]. Hamilton [Jordan, White House chief of staff] is very political in my judgment. He understands Jimmy Carter better than anybody, but he’s political. Rosalynn is very political. Rosalynn has superb political judgment. I don’t think that the President was possessed of infallibility in his political judgment, because he didn’t think that way. The cause and effect relationships of political decisions such as the water projects, he didn’t spend any time thinking that through because he resolved that he was doing what was right so all the other things fall into place. Now Rosalynn is a great cause and effect thinker. She has got good political instincts and judgments. Probably the people in the White House ultimately started going to her, absent anybody else to go to about the political problems that he was facing. 

That’s the general perception of what happened. And I know, for example, that [pollster] Pat Caddell would go to Rosalynn rather than go to the President with what his polling was showing. [Gerald] Rafshoon from the media standpoint would do exactly the same. Hamilton, if he got to a real knotty problem vis-à-vis a political judgment, would go to Rosalynn. Rosalynn was the resident political expert. Things went through her because of her judgment. Let me tell you something, it was well founded. She’s good. Again in my opinion, she’s good. She knows what she’s doing. And she knows how to do things.

Again, he was criticized because he said something one time about Rosalynn doing this, some terrible mistake we made or something sending her to South America where macho image was something they found to fuss about. But she knows what she’s doing and she’s got good instincts and good judgment, and she if anybody could convince him of a change in course or a change in direction.

Q: I’d like to get clarification on this question of the anti-political orientation. When you were talking about that originally I thought I understood the sense in which you were using the term political, that is that you were talking about a style of going about building influence, stroking egos and building personal friendships, and that sort of thing. Then you said something about Jordan being very political and Rosalynn being very political and it struck me that you were using it in a somewhat different sense of the word. As someone who calculates consequences and expects that this will be popular or that will be unpopular, I’m wondering which of those or do both of those really apply to Carter when you say he’s sort of anti-political?

Bert Lance: I’m not sure that both of them apply to him. When I was saying what I did about Hamilton and Rosalynn, that’s a comparative statement, that compared to him they become the political people who measured that sort of action and response, and cause and effect. I don’t think he ever made a decision where he sat down and if you were listing things and call them reform, where he would go down and list all the political disadvantages or advantages of making a decision. I think he’d list all the reasons why it ought to be made and all the reasons why it shouldn’t be made and there wouldn’t be any political judgments involved in that.

Q: So he would be apolitical.

Bert Lance: [President Carter] would be apolitical in that if you brought him a basic issue as President I think that’s the way he would formulate his judgment. Now if I were doing it, if I were making that decision, I’d factor in the political as I understood it. What I was saying about Hamilton and Rosalynn, I think they’d factor in the political pluses or minuses in that decision. So they become political in that sense. I do not think he ever made any basic decisions where he factored in the political.

Q: So in that sense of the word he would be apolitical. In the sense of being unwilling to engage in the support building processes you could say he would be anti-political.

Bert Lance: That’s right. I think that’s the best way of saying it. Now I think that when he listened to Rosalynn that he’s no dummy by any means. He knows full well that Rosalynn has factored in the political aspects of it or Hamilton has factored in the political pluses and minuses. And frankly that’s an awfully good position for somebody to be in. Because then he’s true to his own being but he knows full well that that’s not being overlooked in the process.