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First ladies saluted in exhibit

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No one in Atlanta can appreciate the Smithsonian exhibit "First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image" at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum more than Rosalynn Carter.

Life in the White House was heady, exciting, challenging, frustrating and humbling, the former first lady told an audience at the Carter Center recently.

She met world leaders, lobbied for mental health legislation and traveled on behalf of the United States. She planned state dinners, attended Cabinet meetings and held regular business lunches with her husband, whom she learned to call "president."

"That was hard for me," she says.

She listened as daughter Amy disparaged a place setting of china from former first lady Lucy Hayes' flora-and-fauna set and watched amused as Amy's brothers made sure Amy sat in front of the maligned wild boar plate.

When Amy turned 12, she invited then-idol John Travolta to the celebration.

He accepted.

They served him spaghetti.

All in all, she says, "being first lady's a pretty nice position."

It's a role that has evolved over the years, but inevitably reflects the woman who fills it.

Items from the Smithsonian range from a wooden serving tray used by Martha Washington to the white cashmere outfit worn by Laura Bush to her husband's second inauguration last year.

Through the clothes and china, photos and campaign material on display, visitors can take a walk through the history of the republic with the women at its center --- most of whom were never able to vote.

Their personalities and interests varied.

As FDR's wife, the forceful Eleanor Roosevelt, a longtime supporter of women's rights and humanitarian causes, held her own news conferences. Her requirement that only female reporters cover them sent many editors scrambling to hire female journalists.

Her successor, Bess Truman, refused all requests for interviews, saying, "I have nothing to say to the public."

Sarah Polk, who enjoyed politics and acted as her husband James' adviser in the mid-19th century, once announced that she would "neither keep house nor make butter" as first lady. More than a century later, as her husband ran for president, Hillary Clinton incited controversy with a similar remark. Defending her professional life as a lawyer, she said, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas."

Speaking of tea --- first ladies over the centuries have been judged on how they managed the job as the nation's hostess.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Nancy Reagan were criticized for lavishness. But Mamie Eisenhower, who perhaps perfected the role of the supportive spouse, was praised for her large-scale entertaining amid post-World War II optimism.

Criticisms reflect the tension in the American republic about how "royal" the White House should appear, says John Roberts, author of "Rating the First Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the Presidency."

"On the one hand, people are fascinated by the glamour, the pomp and circumstance," says Roberts, who worked in the Reagan White House. "On the other hand, if you overdo that, something in the America psyche rebels."

First ladies rise and fall in public opinion polls, just as their husbands do, he says. And when, post-presidency, the term in office is re-evaluated, sometimes the first lady's ratings change, too.

Wives have sometimes bolstered their husband's tattered images. During his campaign for the presidency in 1884, Grover Cleveland had been accused of fathering a child out of wedlock.

But his White House wedding to the lovely and very young --- 21 --- Frances Folsom overshadowed the scandal. Public fascination with his bride prompted advertisers to employ her image on products such as the sewing thread "that binds the union."

Although each woman brings her own strengths and interests to the job, the idea that a first lady can be whatever she wants to be is a myth, says Gil Troy, a historian at McGill University in Montreal and author of "Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons."

"There are certain protocols, certain limits, certain green lights and red lights to see," Troy says. "Often it feels like a no-win situation."

Being America's first lady, he says, "is the second-hardest job in the world."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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