Plains, Georgia – November 20, 2023
Last month, an aide close to 99-year-old former President Jimmy Carter marveled at his enduring life, suggesting that he might be holding on until his wife, Rosalynn, passes away. This sentiment reflects not only the longest presidential marriage in history but also one of the most profound partnerships within the walls of the White House.
Rosalynn Carter, who passed away last Sunday, played an integral role in her husband’s life from their early days in Plains, Georgia, where she managed the books for his struggling peanut business. She provided unwavering support as he ventured into politics, serving as his sounding board during his gubernatorial campaigns.
In 1976, when Jimmy Carter, initially dismissed as “Jimmy Who?” by many, secured the presidency by defeating incumbent Gerald Ford, Rosalynn Carter redefined the role of the first lady. Unlike her predecessors, she was politically engaged, opting for substance over style. Eschewing high fashion, she famously wore the same blue gown to presidential balls that she had worn to gubernatorial inaugural celebrations.
Rosalynn Carter broke new ground as the first presidential spouse to establish an office within the White House, a precedent that every successor would follow. Contrary to traditional expectations, she attended Cabinet meetings, taking notes from her seat along the wall. Her signature issue became mental health, and she took a leading role in initiatives such as the White House Conference on Aging, testifying before Congress, a feat not accomplished since Eleanor Roosevelt.
As a reporter for Newsday, I had the opportunity to cover Rosalynn Carter’s trip to Southeast Asia in November 1979, where she brought global attention to the plight of Cambodian refugees. A photograph of her holding an emaciated baby in a Thai refugee camp made headlines worldwide.
Despite her reserved demeanor and limited public speaking skills, Rosalynn Carter displayed remarkable political instincts, even outshining her husband in some circles. Her resilience was evident when Jimmy Carter suffered a landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan in 1980, as revealed in her memoir, “First Lady From Plains,” where she admitted, “I don’t like to lose.”
After leaving the White House in 1981, the Carters co-founded the Carter Center in Atlanta, dedicating themselves to promoting democracy and eradicating disease. Their commitment extended to building houses for the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, both in the United States and abroad.
Rosalynn Carter continued her advocacy for mental health, even in the face of dementia, a condition disclosed by the Carter Center six months ago. She hoped that this revelation would encourage more open conversations about mental health in families worldwide. The legacy of Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter remains not only in their political contributions but also in their enduring commitment to humanitarian causes.