Plains, Georgia. (AP) – Members of Washington’s gossip class, who often don’t know what to do with strangers, called Rosalynn Carter a “steel magnolia” when she arrived as first lady.
A devout Baptist and mother of four, she was petite and outwardly shy, with a soft smile and a softer Southern accent. That was “Magnolia”. She was also a force behind Jimmy Carter’s rise from peanut farmer to winner of the 1976 presidential election. This was “steel.”
However, this obvious, even trite, moniker almost certainly trivializes their role and influence across the Carters’ early lives, their only term in the White House, and after four decades as global humanitarians advocating for peace, democracy, and disease eradication. .
During more than 77 years of marriage, until her death Sunday at age 96, Rosalynn Carter was a business and political partner, best friend and confidant of the 39th president. A Democrat from Georgia like her husband, she has become a leading advocate in her own right for people with mental health conditions and family caregivers in American life, joining the former president as co-founder of the Carter Center, where they set a new standard for what first spouses can achieve after relinquishing power. .
“She was always eager to help her agenda, but she knew what she wanted to accomplish,” said Kathy Kidd, a White House adviser to the first lady who later became a Carter Center board member.
Rosalynn Carter has often spoken about her passion for politics. “I love campaigning,” she told The Associated Press in 2021. She acknowledged how devastated she was when voters delivered a landslide rebuke in 1980.
Kidd said there was a greater purpose behind the excitement and disappointments: “She really wanted to use the influence she had to help people.”
Jimmy Carter biographer Jonathan Alter says that only Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton vie for Rosalynn Carter’s influence as first lady. He says the Carter family’s work outside the White House distinguishes it as having achieved “one of the greatest political partnerships in American history.”
Kidd remembered her old boss as “practical” and “shrewd,” knowing when to pressure congressional mediators without urging from her husband, and when to campaign on her own. It did so for long periods in 1980 when the president remained in the White House trying to free American hostages in Iran, something he was only able to accomplish after the loss of Ronald Reagan.
“I was in every state,” Rosalynn Carter told the AP. “I campaigned hard every day the last time we ran.”
She subverted stereotypes of First Ladies as hostesses and fashion experts: she bought dresses off the rack and set up an office in the East Wing with her own staff and initiatives—a push that culminated in the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 to direct more federal funds to mental health treatment, although 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 while fulfilling her traditional responsibilities, she expanded the role of First Lady, helping to establish the regular musical productions that still air as the public television program “In Performance at the White House.” She chaired the inaugural Kennedy Center Honors, prestigious annual awards that continue to recognize fundamental contributions to American culture. She hosted dinner parties at the White House but danced only with her husband.
Her approach has confused some observers in Washington.
“There was still a women’s page in the newspaper,” Kidd recalls. “The reporters who were on the national scene didn’t think it was their job to cover what she was doing. She belonged to the women’s page. The women’s page members had a hard time understanding what she was doing, because she wasn’t doing traditional first lady things.
Her grandson Jason Carter, now chairman of the Carter Center board, described her “determination that never stopped.” She was “physically small” but “the strongest, toughest woman you could ever hope to see.”
Including as a political enforcer for Jimmy Carter.
Jason Carter said she “defended my grandfather in many contexts, including against Democrats and others,” and confronted, in person or by phone, people she believed damaged his cause.
“There are definitely stories of her — despite her reputation as a soft-spoken — cursing in a blue streak at people who said bad things about my grandfather,” he added, laughing as he imagined his grandmother threatening the confused players. of F bombs.”
The younger Carter, who was a state senator from Georgia and an unsuccessful candidate for governor, called her “the best politician in the family.”
However, she has always linked politics to policy and those political outcomes to people’s lives, connections formed since her early years in the Deep South in the Great Depression.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on August 18, 1927, in Plains, and was delivered to a neighbor by nurse Lillian Carter. “Miss Lillian” brought her son Jimmy, then about 3 years old, back to the Smith home a few days later to meet the child.
Not long after, James Earl Carter Sr. moved his family to a farm outside of the plains. But the Carter and Smith children attended the same all-white schools in the city. Years later, Rosalynn and Jimmy quietly supported integration and advocated for it louder at Plains Baptist Church. But as they grew up, they accepted Jim Crow segregation as the norm, she wrote in her memoir.
Both Rosalynn and Jimmy endured the challenges of Depression-era rural life. But while the Carter family had a large number of landowners, the Smith family was poor, and Rosalyn’s father died in 1940, leaving her to help raise her siblings. She remembered this period as an inspiration for her focus on caregivers, a way of classifying people, which biographer Alter said was not widely used in discussions of American society and economics until Rosalynn Carter used her platform.
“There are only four types of people in this world,” she said. “Those who were caregivers; Those who are currently caregivers; Those who will be carers, and those who will need carers.
As she grew older, Rosalyn became close to one of Jimmy’s sisters. Ruth Carter later engineered a date between her brother and Rosalynn during one of their trips home from the United States Naval Academy during World War II. Jimmy, newly commissioned as a lieutenant in the Navy, and Rosalynn married July 7, 1946, at Plains Methodist Church, her church, before she joined his Baptist faith.
Rosalyn was a bright student in high school and at nearby Georgia Southwestern College. She considered becoming an architect but later explained that beyond simply falling in love with Jimmy, marrying a naval officer was the best path to achieving what she wanted most: leaving her hometown of about 600 people.
As Jimmy’s career progressed, Rosalyn took care of their growing family. When Earl Carter, then a state legislator, died in 1953, Jimmy decided to leave the Navy and move the family home to the Plains. He did not consult Rosalyn. On the long car ride back from Washington, she treated him with silence, speaking to him only through their eldest son.
What they later called the “full partnership” did not arise until a few years later, when a desperate Jimmy asked Rosalynn to answer the phones at the peanut farm warehouse. Soon she was managing the books and dealing with clients.
“I knew more about working on paper than he did, and he would take my advice on things,” she recalled to the AP.
The lesson did not immediately transfer to Jimmy’s political ambitions.
Already an appointed member of the school board, he decided to run for the state Senate in 1962, again without consulting Rosalyn. This time, she accepted the decision because she shared her goals.
Four years later, Jimmy ran for governor, giving Rosalynn the first opportunity to campaign for herself. I lost. But they spent four dream years preparing for another attempt, traveling across the state together and separately, with a network of friends and supporters. It would become the model for the “Peanut Brigade” they used to cover Iowa and other key states in the 1976 Democratic primary season.
Those campaigns for governor promoted mental health as Rosalynn’s signature issue.
She once wrote that voters would “stand patiently” waiting to talk about their family struggles. After hearing an overnight mill worker’s story about caring for her injured child, Rosalyn decided to take the case to the candidate. She showed up at her husband’s meeting that day, unannounced, and stood in line to shake his hand like everyone else.
“I want to know what you are going to do about mental health when you become governor,” I asked him. His response: “We’re going to have the best mental health system in the country, and I’m going to put you in charge of it.”
By the time they reached the White House, Rosalynn had distinguished herself as the center of Carter’s inner circle, even if those outside the West Wing did not appreciate her role.
“Unlike many first ladies, she didn’t fight with the White House staff, because they thought she was great,” Alter said, describing her relationship with the staff as smoother than that of the president.
Carter sent her on diplomatic missions. She took Spanish lessons to help her on her travels to Latin America. She decided on her own to travel in 1979 to Cambodian refugee camps. Spurred by her Friday briefing, she was planning for the following week, having assembled an international delegation to address the crisis.
“She wasn’t just taking pictures, she was watching people die,” Kidd said.
The first lady worked closely with policy chief Stu Eisenstat on mental health, but the legislation was not limited to her own priorities.
Kidd recalls that she “did a lot of quiet, behind-the-scenes pressure” on figures in Congress regarding the administration’s agenda, but “she was very firm about the fact that we never talked about who she was calling” so that she could contact him. Never overwhelm the boss.
She traveled to US state capitals and pushed for the adoption of vaccine requirements for school children, winning the support of converts to policies that remain largely intact today, and recent battles over COVID-19 vaccine mandates have not continued.
She participated in intense negotiations at Camp David with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and Israeli President Menachem Begin, both of whom were enthusiastic about the first lady.
Jimmy’s mother, who lived in the White House, would sometimes rank her daughter-in-law by appearing to be the chief hostess in the house. But Lillian Carter clearly recognized the hierarchical system. Lillian told reporters that the president was “listening to her.”
Not always, of course.
Rosalyn wanted her husband to delay the treaty ceding control of the Panama Canal, forcing her to seek a second term. She met regularly, without the president, with pollster Pat Cadell. They discussed her re-election path, which she knew was fraught in the wake of inflation, high interest rates, oil shortages and the Iranian hostage situation.
She was flabbergasted when they returned to the plains in 1981, so she returned to agricultural work. But the void would not begin to close until the former president established the Carter Center. At her location in Atlanta, she has found a permanent platform from which to travel the world, lobby for the elimination of Guinea worm and other diseases in developing countries, monitor elections, elevate the debate on the rights of women and girls and continue her mental health advocacy. All while living in the same Georgia village she wanted to leave forever.
“You know, my grandparents have had a microwave since 1982,” Jason Carter said recently, explaining their “simple” and “frugal” approach. “They have a rack next to their sink where they dry out Ziploc bags, and they reuse them.” A family in the same house the Carters lived in when Jimmy was first elected as a state senator.
There, the former first lady received foreign dignitaries, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, aspiring politicians seeking advice, and, as her health declined, a new generation of Carter Center leaders emerged. She liked to serve pimento cheese sandwiches, fruit, and, depending on the guest list, a few glasses of wine. She came with an agenda.
“Carter was always the first one to the door, and she insisted on walking me to the door last,” Ms. Paige Alexander, CEO of the Carter Center, said of her sessions on the Plains. “That last walk… so she could get “Her final points were, I think, quite indicative of the relationship they had and how she managed it from the Governor’s Mansion all the way.”