Rosalynn Carter, Outspoken Former First Lady, Dies at 96

By | November 20, 2023

ATLANTA (AP) — Former first lady Rosalynn Carterthe closest advisor to Jimmy Carter during his single term as President of the United States and his subsequent four decades as a global humanitarian, died at the age of 96.

The Carter Center said she died Sunday after living with dementia and suffering several months of declining health. The statement said she “passed away peacefully, with her family by her side” at 2:10 p.m. in her rural home in Plains, Georgia.

“Rosalynn has been my full partner in everything I have accomplished,” the former president said in the statement. “She gave me great advice and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in this world, I always knew someone loved and supported me.

President Joe Biden called the Carters “an incredible family because they brought so much grace to the office.”

“He had this great integrity, still does. And she did it too,” Biden told reporters as he boarded Air Force One Sunday evening after an event in Norfolk, Virginia. “God bless them.” Biden said he spoke to the family and was told Jimmy Carter was surrounded by his children and grandchildren.

The White House later released a joint statement from the president and first lady Jill Biden saying Carter had inspired the nation. “She was a champion of equal rights and opportunities for women and girls; an advocate for the mental health and well-being of every person; and a supporter of the often invisible and unpaid caregivers of our children, aging loved ones and people with disabilities,” the statement added.

Reaction from world leaders flowed in throughout the day.

The Carters were married for more than 77 years, forging what they both described as a “full partnership.” Unlike many previous first ladies, Rosalynn participated in Cabinet meetings, spoke out on controversial issues, and represented her husband on trips abroad. President Carter’s aides sometimes called her – privately – “co-president.”

“Rosalynn is my best friend…the perfect extension of me, probably the most influential person in my life,” Jimmy Carter told aides during their White House years, which lasted from 1977-1981.

The former president, now 99, remains at the couple’s Plains home after entering hospice care himself in February.

Fiercely loyal and compassionate, as well as politically astute, Rosalynn Carter prided herself on being an activist first lady, and no one doubted her influence behind the scenes. When her role in a high-profile cabinet reshuffle became known, she was forced to publicly declare: “I don’t run the government.”

Many presidential aides insisted that her political instincts were better than her husband’s — they often sought his support for a project before discussing it with the president. Her iron will, contrasting with her outwardly shy demeanor and soft Southern accent, prompted Washington reporters to call her “the Steel Magnolia.”

Both Carters said in their later years that Rosalynn had always been the more political of the two. After Jimmy Carter’s crushing defeat in 1980, it was she, not the former president, who contemplated an implausible comeback, and years later she confessed to missing her life in Washington.

Jimmy Carter trusted him so much that in 1977, just months into his term, he sent him on a mission to Latin America to tell dictators that he meant what he said in refusing military aid. and any other support for human rights violators.

She also had strong feelings about the style of the Carter White House. The Carters did not serve hard liquor at public functions, although Rosalynn allowed American wine. There were fewer ballroom dance parties and more square dancing and picnics.

Throughout her husband’s political career, she chose mental health and elderly issues as her political priority. When the media did not cover these efforts as much as she believed was warranted, she criticized journalists for only writing about “sexy topics.”

As honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she testified before a Senate subcommittee, becoming the first first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt to address a congressional panel. She was back in Washington in 2007 to push Congress to improve mental health coverage, saying, “We’ve been working on this for so long that it finally seems like it’s within our reach.” »

She said she developed her interest in mental health during her husband’s campaigns for governor of Georgia.

“I used to come home and say to Jimmy, ‘Why do people talk to me about their problems?’ And he said, ‘Because you might be the only person they’ll see who might be close to someone who can help them,'” she said.

After Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, Rosalynn Carter seemed visibly more devastated than her husband. At first, she had little interest in returning to the small town of Plains, where they were both born, married, and spent most of their lives.

“I was hesitant, not at all sure I could be happy here after the dazzle of the White House and the years of challenging political battles,” she wrote in her 1984 autobiography, “First Lady from Plains.” But “we gradually regained the satisfaction of a life that we had left long before”.

After leaving Washington, Jimmy and Rosalynn co-founded the Carter Center in Atlanta to continue their work. She chaired the center’s annual symposium on mental health issues and raised money for efforts to help the mentally ill and homeless. She also wrote “Helping Yourself Help Others,” about the challenges of caring for elderly or ill parents, and a sequel, “Helping Someone with a Mental Illness.”

Often, the Carters left their home on humanitarian missions, building homes with Habitat for Humanity and promoting public health and democracy in the developing world.

“I’m tired,” she says of her travels. “But something this wonderful always happens.” Going to a village where they have Guinea worm and going back a year or two later and there’s no Guinea worm, I mean, people are dancing and singing – it’s so wonderful.

In 2015, Jimmy Carter’s doctors discovered four small tumors on his brain. The Carters feared he would only have a few weeks to live. He was treated with a drug to boost his immune system and later announced that doctors found no signs of cancer. But when they heard the news, she said she didn’t know what she was going to do.

“I rely on him when I have questions, when I write speeches, anything, I consult him,” she said.

She helped Carter recover several years later, when he had a hip replacement at age 94 and had to learn to walk again. And she was with him earlier this year when he decided, after a series of hospital stays, to forgo further medical interventions and begin end-of-life care.

Jimmy Carter is the longest-serving American president. Rosalynn Carter was the nation’s second-oldest first lady, behind Bess Truman, who died at age 97.

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains on August 18, 1927, the eldest of four children. Her father died when she was young, so she took on much of the responsibility of caring for her siblings when her mother went to work part-time.

She also contributed to the family income by working after school in a beauty salon. “We were very poor and worked hard,” she once said, but she continued her education and graduated from high school as valedictorian of her class.

She soon falls in love with the brother of one of her best friends. Jimmy and Rosalynn had known each other their whole lives – it was Jimmy’s mother, nurse Lillian Carter, who delivered baby Rosalynn – but he left for the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, while she was still in high school.

After a blind date, Jimmy told his mother, “This is the girl I want to marry.” » They married in 1946, shortly after he and Rosalynn graduated from Annapolis from Georgia Southwestern College.

Their sons were born where Jimmy Carter was stationed: John William (Jack) in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1947; James Earl III (Chip) in Honolulu in 1950; and Donnel Jeffery (Jeff) in New London, Connecticut, in 1952. Amy was born in Plains in 1967. At that time, Carter was a state senator.

Life in the Navy had provided Rosalynn with her first chance to see the world. When Carter’s father, James Earl Sr., died in 1953, Jimmy Carter decided, without consulting his wife, to move the family back to Plains, where he took over the family farm. She joined him there in daily operations, keeping the books and weighing the fertilizer trucks.

“We developed a partnership when we were in the agricultural supply business,” Rosalynn Carter proudly recalled in a 2021 interview with The Associated Press. “I knew more about the business than he did on paper. He would follow my advice on certain things.

At the height of the Carters’ political power, Lillian Carter said of her daughter-in-law: “She can do anything in the world with Jimmy, and she’s the only one.” He listens to her.

Ceremonies The celebration of Rosalynn Carter’s life will take place after the Thanksgiving holiday in Atlanta and Sumter County, Georgia, the Carter Center announced Sunday evening.

The November 27 ceremony, at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, is open to the public. A private funeral and burial will be held Nov. 29, but services will be televised and streamed online, the center said.

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