Remarks of the First Lady at the Gridiron Dinner, (24 March 1979) Washington, D.C.

Context

First Lady Rosalynn Carter used her influence to expand the role of first lady.1 With the potential to be the “most active First Lady in decades,” Carter lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment and mental health programs, and she also encouraged Americans to volunteer for those in need, supported government aid for the elderly, and championed extracurricular activities for the youth.2 Her outspokenness and her engagement in political matters raised red flags among critics. Because she was “not elected to any office,” one journalist surmised that Rosalynn Carter had “assumed a workload and status approaching that of head of state.”3 Yet, others praised her knowledge of the issues, commenting that she possessed the “best mind for statecraft and politics that we have seen among the First Ladies.”4 She was called  the “president’s partner” and the “second most powerful person in the United States” because she served in the role as confidante, advisor, surrogate, and “everything that’s characteristic of a politician.”5 If the president was absent from an event, Mrs. Carter acted as his surrogate, often easing any anxieties over her presence with humor in the speeches she delivered.6

Mrs. Carter represented her husband and all Democrats during the 94th annual Gridiron Club Dinner. On March 24, 1979, she appeared before 600 journalists and VIP guests gathered at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. to hear her speak along with Henry Kissinger, the representative for Republicans. The Gridiron Club, a journalistic organization founded in 1885, is comprised of members from newspapers, news services, magazines, and broadcast networks.7 Each year they host the Gridiron Dinner—an elegant affair— that features satirical pieces, musical skits, and self-deprecating jokes made by the president and leaders of each political party.8 The legendary expectation, Charles B. Seib explains, is that speakers must  “leave the Gridiron audience in stitches.”9 Such laughter was dependent on the ability of presidents and speakers to make fun of themselves and the press.10

Not only was Carter’s presence at the Gridiron event historic, but her speech was also unprecedented. Women were not granted membership to the Gridiron Club until 1970. When Carter spoke, only two women were members of the Club and she was the first woman to speak at this event.11 She attended the event with her husband in 1978, but President Carter declined to attend the next two years. Attending a light-hearted event like the Gridiron dinner may have seemed inappropriate for a president given the economic hardships facing the country and the growing oil crisis that led to long lines at gas stations. Carter was also gearing up for a hotly contested re-election campaign in 1980. President Carter’s absence enabled Mrs. Carter to “ma[k]e a bit of history in 1979 when she attended and delivered the speech for the Democrats.”12 Adapting to the rhetorical situation, Carter made several jokes, many at her husband’s expense. Although her speech “reportedly was largely the work of local funny men,” the Washington Post praised her for “deliver[ing] the evening’s best line: “I love to hear those Yankees talk.”13

This speech serves as a representative occasion where Rosalynn Carter enacted her surrogate role to ease the tension surrounding the president’s absence and the problems facing the nation. Betty Boyd Caroli suggests that during her four years as first lady, Rosalynn Carter “joined the list of remarkable women generally judged more successful than their husbands in the White House.”14 In fact, during President Carter’s concession speech in 1980, he stated, “I want to thank all of you who made my job so easy and enjoyable and comfortable. Thank you, Rosalynn.”15

Endnotes

  1. Diane M. Blair and Shawn J. Parry-Giles, “Rosalynn Carter, Crafting a Presidential Partnership Rhetorically,” in Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century, ed. Molly Meijer Werthheimer (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), 341.
  2. Kandy Stroud, “Rosalynn’s Agenda in the White House,” New York Times, March 20, 1977, 19-20.
  3. U.S. News and World Report, “Being the First Lady Isn’t What It Used to Be,” March 13, 1978, 74.
  4. Hugh Sidey, “Second Most Powerful Person,” TIME, May 7, 1979, 22.
  5. “The President’s Partner,” Newsweek, November 5, 1979, 36; Sidey, “Second Most Powerful Person,” 22.
  6. Blair and Parry-Giles, “Rosalynn Carter,” 355.
  7. “Gridiron Club Records: A Finding Aid to the Collection in the Library of Congress,” Library of Congress, 2013, http://rs5.loc.gov/service/mss/eadxmlmss/eadpdfmss/2013/ms013095.pdf.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Charles B. Seib, “Gridiron: Mixed Review,” Washington Post, March 30, 1979, A23.
  10. Helen Thomas and Baine Kerr, Thanks for the Memoires, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House (New York: Lisa Drew/Scribner, 2002), 123; Max Mickel, “Ribs, Spare and Otherwise, Hot from the Gridiron,”Washington Post, March 26, 1979, B1.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Thomas and Kerr, Thanks for the Memories, 13.
  13. Seib, “Gridiron,” A23.
  14. Betty Boyd Caroli, First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled What May Be the Most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 271.
  15. Thomas and Kerr, Thanks for the Memories, 124.