First lady Rosalynn Carter helped plan every aspect of her funeral services so that the events would reflect her in the venues, flowers and music. What the world saw is what Mrs. Carter wanted, including the guest list.
First Lady Melania Trump was of course one of those invited guests at her tribute service at Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University.
The President’s House, known as the White House, has come to be synonymous with the United States of America and thereby so have the people who have been elected to live there. As Lady Bird Johnson perfectly described “This house is only on loan to it’s tenants. We are temporary occupants linked to a continuity of presidents.”
The first families have become synonymous as an extension of that symbol. With today’s current climate so divided and polarizing it is rare to find moments where we come together, but something that former first lady Rosalynn Carter has done even in her death.
Many have acted surprised by the notion of Mrs. Carter wanting Mrs. Trump to be invited to her funeral because of their political differences, but they should not be. The Washington Post reported that Mrs. Carter, “was involved in that decision, despite public disagreements over many issues between Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and Donald Trump, a Republican. ‘My mother was a gracious person, and she would treat everybody with respect, including a former first lady,’ [their son] Chip explained.”
In fact, history was made by all the living former first ladies being in attendance for the service in honor of first lady Rosalynn Carter in Georgia (in addition to Presidents Biden and Clinton and Vice President Harris and second gentleman Emhoff).
This act of bipartisan continuity and unity for the world to witness is in many ways due to Mrs. Carter’s action of attending the funeral of first lady Mamie Eisenhower. While first ladies in the past have occasionally attended the funerals of others, it was not a common practice and often only for ones whom they had a personal or significant relationship.
Of course, there have been exceptions, notably the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt. President Kennedy himself attended that funeral along with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and first lady Bess Truman.
But it was in 1979 when first lady Rosalynn Carter attended the funeral of first lady Mamie Eisenhower that an informal tradition of first ladies attending other first ladies’ funerals really began.
According to Carl Anthony, Mrs. Carter’s attendance was significant. “First, Mrs. Carter came on her own, without the President. Second, she was from the oppositional political party, and her presence thus signaled a motive transcending partisanship. Third, Mrs. Carter had only met Mrs. Eisenhower on one occasion, so there was no long link between them.”
The moments of seeing former political rivals who often later become friends in the pews together is one reminder of what sets our nation apart from so many others. First lady Betty Ford and first lady Rosalynn Carter became very close friends despite the hard-fought campaign between their husbands.
When Mrs. Ford died, it was first lady Rosalynn Carter who was requested to give the eulogy for her funeral.
During the funeral of President George H.W. Bush, first lady Melania Trump invited first lady Laura Bush and her family to the White House for a private tour so they could see the Christmas decorations and allow the younger Bush relatives to see where their grandparents lived while serving the nation.
Mrs. Bush posted a family photo in the State Dining Room with the caption, "A sweet visit during this somber week. Thanks to Mrs. Trump for inviting our family to the White House to see the Christmas decorations and our old friends, the residence staff."
In a lighter moment, President George W. Bush walked over to greet all the former presidents and first ladies at his father’s funeral and gave first lady Michelle Obama a piece of candy, which has turned into their “thing” since protocol dictates that they sit next to each other at funerals or other official events.
Mrs. Obama said, “He is my partner in crime at every major thing where all the formers gather. ... I love him to death. He’s a wonderful man."
First lady Melania Trump knew that in the White House President and Mrs. George H.W. Bush were one the favorite modern first families with the Executive Residence staff. After first lady Barbara Bush passed away, Mrs. Trump quietly arranged for George Hainey, former head maître d’ at the White House, and Buddy Carter, a longtime White House butler, to fly on her plane to Texas to attend Mrs. Bush’s Houston funeral service as her guests — an unprecedented act for a sitting first lady to do.
President and Mrs. Carter put differences aside to honor the Trumps during his 2017 inauguration events. Both President and Mrs. Carter attended the private prayer service at the historic Saint John’s Church before President Trump’s Inaugural swearing-in ceremony.
At the service, the Carters told me that they were happy to be there, so, it should be no surprise that Mrs. Trump would not only be invited to attend but graciously accepted the invitation to the funeral.
In today’s political climate, it is hard to find the moments that unify us as a nation, as when they do take place they are often overlooked by the media, but they are moments that we should cherish and be proud of as a nation.
Despite how hard they fight against one another and have bitter disagreements in campaigns and life, these “temporary inhabitants,” as Lady Bird so wisely described, can set their differences aside and show unity for the president or the first lady.
It was a good thing for the American people, and the world, to see our first families come together and to the funeral tribute service in honor of first lady Rosalynn Carter.
Jennifer B. Pickens (@JenniferBPickens) is a White House historian and first lady expert. She is a public speaker the author of three books on the White House: "Christmas at the White House," "Pets at the White House," and her latest book "Entertaining at the White House: Decades of Presidential Traditions." Read more of her reports — More Here.