Rosalynn Carter, first lady and a political partner, dies at 96
By Katharine Q. Seelye
Rosalynn Carter, a true life partner to Jimmy Carter who helped propel him from rural Georgia to the White House in a single decade and became the most politically active first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, died Sunday in Plains, Georgia. She was 96.
The Carter Center in Atlanta announced her death. It had disclosed May 30 that Carter had dementia. “She continues to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones,” a statement by the center said at the time. On Friday, the center said she had entered hospice care at home.
Jimmy Carter, 99, the longest-living president in American history, has also been in hospice care at their home, but so far he has defied expectations. The Carter Center had announced in February that he was stopping full-scale medical care “after a series of short hospital stays,” and his family was preparing for the end. But he has hung on — and celebrated his most-recent birthday on Oct. 1.
Rosalynn Carter was the second-longest-lived first lady; Bess Truman, widow of President Harry S. Truman, was 97 when she died in 1982.
Over their nearly eight decades together, the Carters forged the closest of bonds, developing a personal and professional symbiosis remarkable for its sheer longevity.
Their extraordinary union began formally with their marriage in 1946, but, in a manner of speaking, it began long before that, with a touch of kismet, just after Rosalynn was born in Plains in 1927.
She had been delivered by Jimmy Carter’s mother, a nurse. And a few days later, in a scene that might have been concocted by Hollywood, his mother took little Jimmy to Rosalynn’s house, where he “peeked into the cradle to see the newest baby on the street,” as he recalled in his 2015 memoir, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.”
He was not quite 3. Eighteen years would pass before the two would truly connect. But once they did, they became life and work partners, melding so completely that, as president, Carter would call her “an almost equal extension of myself.”
Reared in the same tiny patch of Georgia farmland, 150 miles south of Atlanta, they were similar in temperament and outlook. They shared a fierce work ethic, a drive for self-improvement and an earnest, even pious, demeanor. Their Christian faith was central to their lives. Both were frugal. Both could be stubborn.
After Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, he and Rosalynn Carter embarked on what became the longest, most active post-presidency in American history. They traveled the world in support of human rights, democracy and health programs; domestically, they labored in service to others, most prominently pounding nails to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity.
In October 2019, after more than 73 years of marriage, they became the nation’s longest-married presidential couple, surpassing the record set by George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush. The Carters marked their 77th wedding anniversary in July.
In the continuum of first ladies after Roosevelt, Carter broke the mold. Like most of the others, she championed a cause — hers was the treatment of mental illness. But she also immersed herself in the business of the nation and kept a sharp eye on politics, a realm her husband famously claimed to ignore.
“I was more a political partner than a political wife,” she wrote in her memoir, “First Lady From Plains” (1984). She was referring to her years as first lady of Georgia, but her description applied equally to her tenure in the White House, from 1977-81.
“When I come home very discouraged,” Jimmy Carter told The New York Times in 1979, “she listens to only just a few words and she looks around at me and says that I’ve got a problem with this or that. She knows enough about the background of that problem that I don’t have to sit for two hours and explain it to her.”
A full 16 years before Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton would offer themselves to the nation as a package deal with the slogan “Buy one, get one free,” the Carters functioned as near co-presidents.
While Carter held himself above politics, saying it was not in his DNA — to the detriment of his presidency, his critics said — his wife acknowledged that for her, politics came naturally.
“I’ve always said I’m more political than Jimmy,” she once said. “I’m political, he’s not.”
Her husband’s advisers concurred. “She is clearly the most political first lady, maybe in history, in terms of being involved in politics and in the campaign,” Patrick Caddell, Jimmy Carter’s pollster, told the Times during the 1980 reelection effort.
Robert Strauss, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, called her, admiringly, “a political animal.”
A crush from afar
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born Aug. 18, 1927, the eldest of four children of Wilburn Edgar and Frances Allethea (Murray) Smith, who was known as Allie. Her father was a car mechanic, her mother a dressmaker.
After Rosalynn was brought into the world by Lillian Carter, Jimmy Carter’s mother, who also helped deliver her siblings, Rosalynn became playmates with Jimmy’s younger sister, Ruth (later Ruth Carter Stapleton, the evangelist).
As a teenager, while Jimmy Carter was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Rosalynn developed a crush on him — she had seen a picture of him in his Navy uniform on Ruth’s wall. Rosalynn and Ruth conspired for years to get him to notice her, but after his fateful glimpse of her as a newborn, they had few encounters.
The Smiths were not as well off as the Carters. Rosalynn was 13 when her father died of leukemia, and her mother was left with an insurance policy that paid $18.75 a month. Rosalynn helped with the sewing and housekeeping and with raising her siblings. She also worked at the local beauty parlor.
Despite her hardships and obligations, she was valedictorian of her class at Plains High School. She later commuted to Georgia Southwestern College, then a junior college.
In 1945, when Carter was home on leave, he finally noticed Rosalynn and asked her out. She said yes.
“She’s the girl I want to marry,” he told his mother after that first date.
He later wrote, “She was remarkably beautiful, almost painfully shy, obviously intelligent, and yet unrestrained in our discussion on the rumble seat of the Ford Coupe.”
To Rosalynn, this upwardly mobile midshipman represented an escape from the small-town life that seemed to be her fate.
When she visited him at Annapolis that winter, he proposed, but she turned him down; she had promised her father on his deathbed that she wouldn’t marry until she finished college.
By summer, they had both graduated. They married on July 7, 1946.
The couple moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where Carter was stationed, although they would soon hopscotch across the country. The birthplaces of their three sons reflected their varied postings: John William was born in Virginia in 1947; James Earl III in Hawaii in 1950; and Donnel Jeffrey in Connecticut in 1952. (Their daughter, Amy, was born in Plains in 1967, long after Jimmy Carter had left the Navy.)
In addition to her husband, Rosalynn Carter is survived by her four children; 11 grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren; and her sister, Lillian Allethea Smith Wall. Her brothers, Murray and Jerrold, both died in 2003.
While in the Navy, Jimmy Carter was away at sea much of the time. Although Rosalynn Carter struggled at home alone with their young boys, she liked seeing the country and became increasingly confident and independent.
But when Jimmy Carter’s father died in 1953 and her husband told her that they were moving back to Plains to take over the family peanut business, she became distraught. She cried and screamed, she recalled in her memoir. She couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the small town they had left, or of living so close to her strong-willed mother and her strong-willed mother-in-law.
“It was the most serious argument of our marriage,” she wrote.
And one she lost.
Back in Plains, she was miserable and mostly stayed at home. Neighbors complained that she was aloof. The farm sputtered in a drought.
Eventually, Rosalynn Carter eased into the financial side of the business, keeping the books and paying the bills. As she started advising her husband, their professional partnership began to develop, and she helped build the company into a lucrative farm supply business. It was a turning point in their relationship.
The civil rights movement brought upheaval to the South in the early 1960s. The Carters, unlike many of their neighbors, supported school desegregation, and Carter was inspired to run for office. He won a seat in the Georgia Senate and in 1966 lost his first try for the governorship. Throughout those tumultuous years, Rosalynn Carter continued to manage the business. Importantly, she overcame her terror of public speaking and immersed herself in her husband’s campaigns, helping him win the governor’s race in 1970.
After Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford for president in 1976, the first lady brought a modesty to the White House, in stark contrast to the imperial presidency of the disgraced Richard Nixon, whose resignation had put Ford, his vice president, into the Oval Office.
The new first lady plunged into public affairs. At Cabinet meetings, she did not speak but frequently buttonholed Cabinet secretaries later to ask questions and then followed up with her husband.
In 1999, the Carters jointly received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Rosalynn Carter, who co-founded a nonprofit that promotes childhood immunizations, served as a deacon at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains and liked to go fly-fishing and bird-watching with her husband. She practiced tai chi and meditated.
But her primary cause remained trying to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
The Carter Center announced Feb. 18 this year that Jimmy Carter would live out his final days at their home in Plains. Rosalynn Carter stayed with him there, at the small one-story ranch house where, except for their four-year detour to the White House, the couple had lived since 1961.
Rosalynn Carter’s dementia had blurred some of her memories, her grandson Josh Carter told the Times in August, but she never forgot who her husband was.
They still held hands, Josh Carter said, adding: “They still sit on the couch together, in the same place they’ve always sat.”