Miami Herald

Rosalynn Carter, outspoken former first lady, dies at 96


Rosalynn Carter, a close political and policy adviser to her husband, President Jimmy Carter, who created the modern Office of the First Lady and advocated for better treatment of the mentally ill during her years in the White House and for four decades afterward, died Nov. 19 at her home in Plains, Ga. She was 96.

The Carter Center in Atlanta announced her death on Sunday, after a statement in May that she had dementia and in November that she had entered hospice care.

The Carters had been married for more than 77 years, the longest presidenti­al marriage in U.S. history, and spent the final months of their time together at the family home in the town of Plains, in southwest Georgia. The former president decided in February to stop medical treatment for an aggressive form of melanoma skin cancer.

During her husband’s 1976 presidenti­al campaign, Mrs. Carter acquired the label “steel magnolia,” a reference to her soft-spoken Southern demeanor that disguised an ambitious and resolute nature.

Determined not to be relegated to a ceremonial role, she worked in the tradition of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to make herself an extension of the president and his policies. She was the first first lady to maintain an office in the East Wing of the White House and only the second, after Roo

sevelt, to testify in Congress.

In May and June 1977, President Carter dispatched his wife on a diplomatic trip to Latin America that was substantiv­e rather than social and unpreceden­ted for a first lady. Her grueling trip took her to seven countries and across more than 12,000 miles in 13 days. Her mission was to explain American foreign policy to a part of the world that her husband believed the United States had neglected.

She engaged Central and South American government figures on issues that included human rights, beef exports, arms reduction, demilitari­zation, drug traffickin­g and nuclear energy. After each day’s talks, she filed a report with the State Department. At many of her meetings, she spoke in Spanish, having recently completed an intensive language course.

Mrs. Carter championed political veteran Sen.

Walter F. Mondale (DMinn.) as her husband’s running mate and worked hard for issues that interested her personally: mental health, elder care and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Despite her profession­al accomplish­ments, some women doubted the strength of her commitment to feminism. Although she never advocated repealing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectivel­y legalized abortion, she considered abortion objectiona­ble on moral and religious grounds.

Mrs. Carter encouraged her husband to bring Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt together at the presidenti­al retreat at Camp David,

Md., for peace talks in

1978. Dividing her time between Camp David and the White House, she provided support and advice as her husband brokered a historic peace agreement between the two nations.

It was Rosalynn Carter, responding to plunging poll numbers for the Carter White House in 1979, who suggested to her husband that he shake up his Cabinet and give a “crisis of confidence” speech to the nation. While Carter never used the word, it became widely known as the “malaise” speech.

In her memoir, “First Lady From Plains” (1984), she described herself as “much more political than Jimmy and … more concerned about popularity and winning reelection.” She said she urged her husband “to postpone certain controvers­ies, such as the Panama Canal treaties or some of the Mideast decisions, until his second term.” She spoke repeatedly of her thirst for victory. “I don’t like to take a chance on losing,” she wrote. “I always want to win!”

The Carters’ close working relationsh­ip began in the farming community of Plains, where they knew each other virtually from birth. They returned to Plains after Jimmy Carter left a promising Navy career to take over the family peanut warehouse when his father died. She was a full partner in every decision her husband made in regard to the business.

Years later, in the decades after Jimmy Carter’s loss to Reagan, the couple continued their partnershi­p as co-founders of the Carter Center, an Atlantabas­ed nonprofit organizati­on committed to human rights and the eliminatio­n of suffering around the world.


Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on Aug. 18, 1927, on her mother’s family farm outside Plains, then a village of about 600 people. When she was 13, her father, a mechanic and school bus driver, died of leukemia. Left with only a small life insurance policy and a meager pension, her mother made ends meet by taking in sewing and working part time in a grocery store before becoming the Plains postmistre­ss.

Rosalynn, the eldest daughter, looked after the younger children, helped with the sewing and earned spending money by shampooing hair in a beauty parlor. She also was valedictor­ian of her graduating class.

She commuted to Georgia Southweste­rn College, a two-year college in nearby Americus, where she took secretaria­l courses and was active with the Young Democrats. Her best friend was Ruth Carter, the younger sister of Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter, three years older than Rosalynn, took little notice of his sister’s friend until the summer of 1945, just before he was to return for his final year at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

After one date, the dashing young midshipman announced to his mother that Rosalynn was the girl he intended to marry.

Following a whirlwind courtship, they married on July 7, 1946, a few weeks after graduation ceremonies at Annapolis. Rosalynn was a few weeks short of 19; he was 21.

In 1954, the Carters returned to Plains — in time to endure one of the worst droughts in Georgia history.

In 1962, Jimmy Carter ran for a seat in the Georgia state Senate, and his wife took charge of all his campaign correspond­ence. After he was elected, she managed the family business during the three months of the year he was away in Atlanta.

She also played a major role in his first campaign for governor in 1966, a campaign that resulted in a bitter defeat in the Democratic primary to Lester Maddox, a fiery segregatio­nist who had made his reputation by waving a pistol and brandishin­g an ax handle at African Americans who tried to eat at his Atlanta restaurant. A year later, the couple had their fourth child, Amy, who was born a few months after Rosalynn Carter turned 40.

In addition to her husband and daughter, survivors include three sons, John W. “Jack” Carter, James E. “Chip” Carter III, and Donnel J. “Jeff” Carter; 11 grandchild­ren; and 14 great-grandchild­ren.


During her husband’s early political campaigns, Rosalynn Carter was content to work behind the scenes. After he was elected governor in 1970, she developed a newfound confidence in her capacity as the state’s official hostess and in her public-speaking obligation­s.

She developed an interest in mental health issues, in part because of childhood memories of a distant cousin in Plains who was in and out of a state mental institutio­n.

She served as a member of the Governor’s Commission to Improve Service for the Mentally and Emotionall­y Handicappe­d. She helped establish 134 daycare centers for the state’s mentally disabled residents, and she volunteere­d at the Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta to gain further firsthand experience with the problems of the mentally ill.

“In 1971, when we went to the Governor’s Mansion, I had thought we would be going home to Plains in 1975, because the governor of Georgia could not succeed himself,” Mrs. Carter recalled. “But we weren’t. Since early 1972, Jimmy had been quietly planning to run for president.”

Carter had been, in essence, measuring himself against potential presidents who happened to come through Georgia and were political guests of the Carters.

When her husband made his candidacy official, she plunged in as usual in support of his political aspiration­s, although she recalled that when she told people during the early days of the campaign that he was running for president, she was often asked, “President of what?”

She campaigned for 18 months in a total of 42 states. She recalled answering questions about mental health, education, prison reform, the reorganiza­tion of government and the price of fertilizer.

Running as an outsider with a mandate to clean up Watergate-ridden Washington, the relatively unknown governor from Georgia secured the Democratic nomination and the right to contest the Republican incumbent, Gerald Ford. In the early morning of Nov. 3, 1976, Ford conceded, and Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th president of the United States.

Rosalynn Carter found life in the White House exhilarati­ng, particular­ly during the early months, but she continued to maintain the parameters of the working partnershi­p she and her husband had crafted years earlier. Throughout their four years in Washington, she kept the books, wrote the checks and kept track of income tax obligation­s.

With her husband’s support and over the objections of others, Rosalynn Carter expanded the role of the first lady. She attended Cabinet meetings, worked on mental health and other policy priorities, and formally created the Office of the First Lady, in the East Wing with its own chief of staff.

“There are very few people in this administra­tion that I fear,” an unnamed White House staffer told Newsweek. “Rosalynn Carter is at the top of the list.”

Mrs. Carter wrote in her memoir: “Once the press and our persistent opponents heard about my attendance at the meetings, very soon it was rumored that I was ‘telling’ Jimmy what to do! They obviously didn’t know Jimmy! But I also think there was a not very subtle implicatio­n that Cabinet meetings were no place for a wife. I was supposed to take care of the house — period.”

As first lady, Mrs. Carter continued working on strategies for helping the mentally ill. “I wanted to take mental illnesses and emotional disorders out of the closet, to let people know it is all right to admit having a problem without the fear of being called crazy,” she wrote in her autobiogra­phy. “If only we could consider mental illnesses as straightfo­rwardly as we do physical illnesses, those affected could seek help and be treated in an open and effective way.”

Her efforts were instrument­al in congressio­nal approval and funding for the Mental Health Systems Act of September 1980, the first major reform of federal, publicly funded mental health programs in nearly two decades.

“Our celebratio­n was brief,” Mrs. Carter recalled in her book. “Within a month Ronald Reagan was elected president, and with the change of administra­tion, many of our dreams and the bulk of the funding for our program were gone … It was a bitter loss.”


After Reagan’s inaugurati­on in January 1981, the Carters went home to Plains, to the house they had built two decades earlier. Leaving the White House much sooner than they expected, they were profoundly frustrated by Jimmy Carter’s unfinished agenda and worried about the fate of the nation under Reagan. The former president was 56, the former first lady was 53, and they had to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives, as they recounted in the book they co-authored, “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life” (1987).

In 1982, they founded the Carter Center, where Rosalynn Carter continued her involvemen­t with mental health issues as chairwoman of the center’s Mental Health Task Force. She wrote or co-authored five books, mainly about caregiving and mental health. She traveled around the world for the Carter Center on trips to promote human rights and peace initiative­s and to monitor elections. She and her husband spent a week a year building homes for low-income people with Habitat for Humanity, and they built or remodeled more than 4,300 homes in 14 countries.

 ?? C.W. GRIFFIN HERALD STAFF ?? Rosalynn Carter, as she appeared on May 25, 1999 during an interview with the Miami Herald at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.
C.W. GRIFFIN HERALD STAFF Rosalynn Carter, as she appeared on May 25, 1999 during an interview with the Miami Herald at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.
 ?? PETER SOUTHWICK AP file | Juloy 16, 1984 ?? Former president Jimmy carter and his wife Rosalynn wave from the podium of San Francisco's Moscone Center in 1984, before the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
PETER SOUTHWICK AP file | Juloy 16, 1984 Former president Jimmy carter and his wife Rosalynn wave from the podium of San Francisco's Moscone Center in 1984, before the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

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