Born: August 18th, 1927
Died: November 19th, 2023
Rosalynn Carter, a true life partner to Jimmy Carter and the most politically active US first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, has died aged 96. 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.
Over their nearly eight decades together, the Carters forged a personal and professional symbiosis remarkable for its sheer longevity. Their extraordinary union began with a touch of kismet, just after Rosalynn was born in Plains, Georgia in 1927.
She had been delivered by Jimmy Carter’s mother, a nurse. 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.
Eighteen years would pass before the two would truly connect. But once they did, they became life and work partners. 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, demeanour.
After Carter lost his re-election bid in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, he and Rosalynn embarked on what became the longest, most active post-presidency in American history. They travelled the world in support of human rights, democracy and health programmes, including making several trips to Ireland. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
In 1977, while president, Carter made a presidential statement on Northern Ireland for St Patrick’s Day, the first of its kind and a precedent for the pivotal role succeeding US presidents played in helping to secure peace. “The only permanent solution will come from the people who live there. There are no solutions that outsiders can impose,” he said.
In the continuum of first ladies after Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter broke the mould. Like most of the others, she championed a cause – hers was the treatment of mental illness. But she also 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 1984 memoir, First Lady from Plains.
Sixteen years before Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Carters functioned as near co-presidents.
Rosalynn Carter entered the White House at the height of the women’s movement and seemed to derive strength from it, although she did not identify herself as a feminist. While Carter held himself above politics, saying it was not in his DNA, 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.”
She was never as contentious a figure as Hillary Clinton and was never perceived as harbouring political ambitions of her own. But her impulse to use her influence could create headaches for the Carter administration. And in one particular case, it led to political disaster. Shortly after scores of Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979, creating the biggest crisis of the Carter presidency, Rosalynn, without telling her husband, asked his brother, Billy, to use his ties to the Libyan government to seek the hostages’ release. Nothing bad resulted from her request, but the subsequent disclosure that she had acted unilaterally on such a sensitive subject shocked the nation.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on August 18th, 1927, the eldest of four children of Wilburn Edgar and Frances Allethea (Murray) Smith, who was known as Allie. Young Rosalynn became playmates with Carter’s younger sister, Ruth (later Ruth Carter Stapleton, the evangelist).
Rosalynn was 13 when her father died of leukaemia, 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.
As a teenager, while Carter was a midshipman at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Rosalynn developed a crush on him. In 1945, when Carter was home on leave, he finally noticed Rosalynn and asked her out.
“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.” They married on July 7th, 1946. She was 18, he was 21.
Their son 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.)
When Carter’s father died in 1953 and he told her that they were moving back to Plains to take over the family peanut farm, she cried and screamed, she recalled in her memoir. “It was the most serious argument of our marriage,” she wrote.
Eventually, Rosalynn 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.
After 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.
As his re-election approached in 1980, with his poll numbers sagging, Carter, preoccupied by the hostage crisis in Iran, found himself largely confined to the White House and unable to campaign. The first lady stepped in as campaigner-in-chief, making speeches on the hustings and battling his challenger Senator Edward Kennedy, for delegates at the Democratic convention.
Although Carter won his party’s nomination, it all came to naught in November, when Reagan decimated him at the ballot box, sweeping 44 states to Carter’s six. Rosalynn did not hide her disappointment, saying she was “bitter enough for both of us”. Their eviction from the White House at relatively young ages – he was 56, she was 53 – left them angry, morose and righteous. “I don’t like to lose,” she wrote in her memoir.
Eventually, they regrouped and delved into multiple projects at home and abroad.
Rosalynn’s dementia had blurred some of her memories, but she never forgot who her husband was. They still held hands, grandson Josh Carter said, adding: “They still sit on the couch together, in the same place they’ve always sat.”
Rosalynn Carter is survived by her husband, four children, 11 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and her sister, Lillian Allethea Smith Wall. Her brothers, Murray and Jerrold, both died in 2003.
– This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in the New York Times.