HomeTravel‘Determination that never stopped’: the life of Rosalynn Carter

‘Determination that never stopped’: the life of Rosalynn Carter


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The Washington chattering class, often unsure what to make of outsiders, dubbed Rosalynn Carter the “steel magnolia” when she arrived as first lady.

A devout Baptist and mother of four, she was diminutive and outwardly shy, with a soft smile and softer Southern accent. That was the “magnolia”. She also was a force behind Jimmy Carter’s rise from peanut farmer to winner of the 1976 presidential election. That was the “steel”.

Yet that obvious, even trite moniker almost certainly undersold her role and impact across the Carters’ early life, their one White House term and their four decades afterward as global humanitarians advocating peace, democracy and the eradication of disease.

Through more than 77 years of marriage, until her death Sunday at the age of 96, Rosalynn Carter was business and political partner, best friend and closest confidant to the 39th president. A Georgia Democrat like her husband, she became in her own right a leading advocate for people with mental health conditions and family caregivers in American life, and she joined the former president as co-founder of The Carter Center, where they set a new standard for what first couples can accomplish after yielding power.

“She was always eager to help his agenda, but she knew what she wanted to accomplish,” said Kathy Cade, a White House adviser to the first lady and later a Carter Center board member.

A passion for politics

Rosalynn Carter talked often of her passion for politics. “I love campaigning,” she told the Associated Press (AP) in 2021. She acknowledged how devastated she was when voters delivered a landslide rebuke in 1980.

Cade said a larger purpose, though, undergirded the thrills and disappointments: “She really wanted to use the influence she had to help people.”

Jimmy Carter biographer Jonathan Alter argues that only Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton rival Rosalynn Carter’s influence as first lady. The Carters’ work beyond the White House, he says, sets her apart as having achieved “one of the great political partnerships in American history”.

Cade recalled her old boss as “pragmatic” and “astute”, knowing when to lobby congressional brokers without her husband’s prompting and when to hit the campaign trail alone. She did that for long stretches in 1980 when the president remained at the White House trying to free US hostages in Iran, something he managed only after losing to Ronald Reagan.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter clutch the microphones as he claims victory in a runoff election at campaign headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on 24 September 1970. Photograph: Charles Kelly/AP

“I was in all the states,” Rosalynn Carter told the AP. “I campaigned solid every day the last time we ran.”

She flouted stereotypes of first ladies as hostesses and fashion mavens: she bought dresses off the rack and established an East Wing office with her own staff and initiatives – a push that culminated in the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 to steer more federal money to treating mental health, though Reagan reversed course. At The Carter Center, she launched a fellowship for journalists to pursue better coverage of mental health issues.

She attended cabinet meetings and testified before Congress. Even when fulfilling traditional responsibilities, she expanded the first lady’s role, helping to establish the regular music productions still broadcast as public television’s In Performance at the White House. She presided over the inaugural Kennedy Center Honors, prestigious annual awards that still recognize seminal contributions to US culture. She hosted White House dinners but danced only with her husband.

Her approach befuddled some Washington observers.

“There was still a women’s page in the newspaper,” Cade recalled. “The reporters who were on the national scene didn’t think it was their job to cover what she was doing. She belonged on the women’s page. And the women’s page folks had difficulty understanding what she was doing, because she wasn’t doing the more traditional first lady things.”

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter dance at the inaugural ball in Washington in January 1977.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter dance at the inaugural ball in Washington in January 1977. Photograph: Reuters

Grandson Jason Carter, now Carter Center board chairman, described her “determination that never stopped”. She was “physically small” but “the strongest, most remarkably tough woman that you would ever hope to see”.

Including as Jimmy Carter’s political enforcer.

She “defended my grandfather in a lot of contexts, including against Democrats and others”, confronting, in person or via telephone, people she thought had damaged his cause, Jason Carter said.

Yet she nearly always connected politics to policy and those policy outcomes to people’s lives – connections forged from her earliest years in the Depression-era deep south.

Rural Depression life

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born 18 August 1927, in Plains, delivered by nurse Lillian Carter, a neighbor. “Miss Lillian” brought her son, Jimmy, then almost 3, back to the Smith home a few days later to meet the baby.

Not long after, James Earl Carter Sr moved his family to a farm outside Plains. But the Carter and Smith children attended the same all-white schools in town. Years later, Rosalynn and Jimmy would quietly support integration – and call for it more vocally at Plains Baptist Church. But growing up, they accepted Jim Crow segregation as the order of the day, she wrote in a memoir.

Rosalynn and Jimmy each endured challenges of rural Depression life. But while the Carters were considerable landholders, the Smiths were poor, and Rosalynn’s father died in 1940, leaving her to help raise her siblings. She recalled this period as inspiration for her emphasis on caregivers, a way of classifying people that Alter, the biographer, said was not used widely in discussions of US society and the economy until Rosalynn Carter used her platform.

“There are only four kinds of people in this world,” she said. “Those who have been caregivers; those who are currently caregivers; those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”

As she grew up, Rosalynn became close to one of Jimmy’s sisters. Ruth Carter later engineered a date between her brother and Rosalynn during one of his trips home from the US Naval Academy during the second world war. Jimmy, newly commissioned as a Navy lieutenant, and Rosalynn were married 7 July 1946 at Plains Methodist Church, her home church before she joined his Baptist faith.

Already an appointed school board member, Jimmy decided to run for state Senate in 1962, without consulting Rosalynn. She embraced the decision because she shared his goals.

Four years later, Jimmy ran for governor, giving Rosalynn the first chance to campaign by herself. He lost. But they spent the ensuing four years preparing for another bid, traveling the state together and separately, with a network of friends and supporters. It would become the model for the “Peanut Brigade” they used to blanket Iowa and other key states in the 1976 Democratic primary season.

The center of Carter’s circle

Those campaigns for governor solidified mental health as Rosalynn’s signature issue.

By the time they got to the White House, Rosalynn had distinguished herself as the center of Carter’s inner circle, even if those beyond the West Wing did not appreciate her role.

Carter sent her on diplomatic missions. She took Spanish lessons to aid her Latin America voyages. She decided herself to travel in 1979 to Cambodian refugee camps. Spurred by a Friday briefing, she was on a plane the next week, having put together an international delegation to address the crisis.

Rosalynn Carter, with a baby in her arms, speaks to the child’s mother at the Sa Kaeo refugee camp in the Prachinburi province (later Sa Kaeo), Thailand, on 9 November 1979.
Rosalynn Carter, with a baby in her arms, speaks to the child’s mother at the Sa Kaeo refugee camp in the Prachinburi province (later Sa Kaeo), Thailand, on 9 November 1979. Photograph: Diana Walker/Getty Images

“She wasn’t just going to have pictures made … she watched people die,” Cade said.

She traveled to US state capitals and urged lawmakers to adopt vaccine requirements for schoolchildren, winning over converts to policies that largely remain intact today, recent fights over Covid-19 vaccine mandates notwithstanding.

Rosalynn wanted her husband to delay the treaty ceding control of the Panama Canal, pushing it to a second term. She met regularly, without the president, with pollster Pat Caddell. They discussed a re-election path she knew was perilous on the heels of inflation, rising interest rates, oil shortages and the Iran hostage situation.

Distraught upon their return to Plains in 1981, she dived back into the farming business. But the void would not begin to close until the former president conceived The Carter Center. In their Atlanta outpost, she found an enduring platform from which to travel the world, pushing to eradicate Guinea worm disease and other maladies in developing countries, monitoring elections, elevating discussion of women’s and girls’ rights and continuing her mental health advocacy. All while living in the same Georgia village she once wanted to leave forever.

Rosalynn Carter holds hands with Jimmy Carter as they work with other volunteers on site in Mishakawa, Indiana, on 17 August 2018.
Rosalynn Carter holds hands with Jimmy Carter as they work with other volunteers on site in Mishakawa, Indiana, on 17 August 2018. Photograph: Robert Franklin/AP

“My grandparents, you know, have a microwave from 1982 … They’ve got a rack next to their sink where they dry Ziploc bags, reuse them,” Jason Carter said recently, explaining their “simple” and “frugal” style in the same home where the Carters lived when Jimmy was first elected as a state senator.

There, the former first lady welcomed foreign dignitaries, Joe Biden and Jill Biden, aspiring politicians seeking advice and, as her health declined, a new generation of Carter Center leadership. She liked to serve pimento cheese sandwiches, fruit and, depending on the guest list, a few glasses of wine. And she came with an agenda.

“Mrs Carter would always be the first one at the door, and she would insist on walking me to the door at the end,” Paige Alexander, CEO of The Carter Center, said of her sessions in Plains. “That final walk … so she could get her last points in was, I think, quite indicative of the relationship that they had and how she managed it from the governor’s mansion all the way through.”

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