IN THE EVENING, he would come from the train and I would be up in the window waiting for him. We lived then over a shop that made lamp shades and he would come walking up the street, his head always tilted to the side, news paper under his arm, a voyager off one train and then a ferry and then yet another train and when he got home he would tell her what the world had done to him that day. This would always happen at the kitchen table and always she would see things his way. My mother, I have to tell you, stuck up for my father.
In the movies, maybe, it was difficult. In the movies, the wife would tear the husband apart, tell him what a fool he was and how she was sorry she had ever married him -- married beneath her, she would say with a lip curled -- but this did not happen in my house. In my house, we stuck by Daddy. He had some rough days but when he got home, by God, he was always right.
This is how I see it at the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. -- no different. I see it that way despite all that has been written about Rosalynn Carter, reams of it in the last week, especially since her recent speaking tour. She was followed by a gaggle of reporters and what they had to do, what they felt compelled to do, was account for her -- explain Rosalynn Carter.
It is almost always this way with the wives of presidents. We somehow think they are something more than wives or something different than wives -- have it anyway you want. Eleanor Roosevelt was turned into some sort of evil influence over her husband by conversatives who, in their usual fog, imagined the Roosevelts were close. Bess Truman was, refreshingly, just a wife and so, really, was Mamie Eisenhower.
From then on, presidential wives have been turned into something else -- glamor pusses, as in the case of Jackie Kennedy, or minor heroines of the prisoner-in-the-White-House variety as in the case of Betty Ford. When she, for instance, allowed as how her children might not be virgins and might, on occasion, have smoked pot, the country let out a collective gasp as if the president's wife is supposed to be some sort of moron who doesn't know what's happening in America.
Now we have Rosalynn Carter and it's clear we don't know what to make of her, either.From time to time she emerges in the press as someone allegedly important to her husband, as if a wife is supposed to be something less. There is consternation that he lunches with her, but worse than that, she gives him advice. This is said not as fact, but as an accusation.
In Washington, at least, all this is what Yul Brynner used to call a "puzzlement" and in this town Mrs. Carter is talked of as if she was some sort of Rasputin with mystical and somewhat evil mastery over her husband. Why, it is alleged she talks to her husband at night -- late at night -- and first thing in the morning and that -- are you ready for this? -- she has an influence on him. My God, I can barely stand to write this. You get the feeling that this is considered wrong or preverted and there is some sort of innuendo present here that she is whispering policy in the bedroom, addling his brain when his defenses are down -- muttering, "Fire Califano, Jimmee. Jimmy, fire 'im."
Some of this is nothing more than raw sexism. It is as if the president's wife has to be a caricature -- either vapid or y'alling all over the place or some clever schemer in white-gloved disguise. We jump to all kinds of assumptions with president's wives, including, in Rosalynn Carter's case, that her advice is hard-headed and practical when it is probably parochial and protective, no loftier than her husband's self-interest. If with some wives we believe that their influence is non-existent, with Mrs. Carter we have swung to the opposite extreme. She is pictured as all-powerful, as if her influence is somehow unfair, unearned, and recently, out of proportion. People want to know what's going on.
Well, anyone who sat around the enamel kitchen at my house could tell you what's going on. Her man in trouble. People are dumping on him. They're kicking the living bejesus out of him and you can just bet that behind that brave smile and Hardy Boy confidence is a hurt and wounded man. She's comforting him. She's telling him that he's right and they're wrong. She's sticking up for him and probably doing it in spades because she is not an adviser with a world-view of events or even by a woman whose horizons have been expanded by a career.
She's something else and there's nothing mysterious about it. She's his wife.