Rosalynn Carter Dies: Former First Lady Was 96

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who was an influential partner to her husband, Jimmy Carter, in his unlikely rise to the Georgia governor’s mansion, then to the White House and later in his impactful post-presidency, died today at the age of 96, the Carter Center announced.

Carter, who suffered from dementia, entered hospice care on Friday. She died at 2:10 p.m. ET at her and her husband’s home in Plains, GA, the center said.

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Jimmy Carter said in a statement, “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.” The Carters were married for 77 years, the longest of any presidential couple. The former president, now 99, entered hospice care earlier this year.

As first lady from 1977 to 1981, Carter used her platform to advocate for mental health and women’s health, diverging from the traditional role in the White House.

Her son Chip Carter said in a statement, “Besides being a loving mother and extraordinary First Lady, my mother was a great humanitarian in her own right. Her life of service and compassion was an example for all Americans. She will be sorely missed not only by our family but by the many people who have better mental health care and access to resources for caregiving today.”

In the White House, the first lady focused on mental health and health care during her tenure, including working on major initiatives and legislation. Unlike some other presidential spouses, she took to politics when her husband transitioned into public life, after having established a farm business in Plains.

She told the AP in 2021, “I love it. I love campaigning. I had the best time. I was in all the states in the United States. I campaigned solid every day the last time we ran.”

She worked on her husband’s first campaign, for a Georgia state Senate seat in 1962, which he won after revealing efforts to stuff the ballot box. She eventually got accustomed to public speaking, and became a fixture on the campaign trail when he ran for governor in 1966 and won the statehouse four years later.

That continued when, as governor coming to the end of his term, Jimmy Carter launched a presidential bid in 1974. Largely a political unknown, he waged a long shot bit against a field of higher profile Democrats. Running against the establishment in the aftermath of the scandals of Watergate, Carter emerged victorious through the primaries, and defeated President Gerald Ford in the general election.

During her husband’s term, she discussed issues with him and advocated for major legislation, to the point where his aides nicknamed her “the Steel Magnolia.” She attended her husband’s cabinet meetings, a first for a first lady. In a 1978 interview with Bette Davis for Dinah Shore’s daytime talk show, Carter responded to critics who questioned the president’s decision to send her in his place to foreign countries to meet with world leaders.

“If I go to represent Jimmy it shows that he is personally interested instead of it being just a diplomatic things between leaders,” Carter told Davis. “I think that is always helpful.”

Carter also said in the interview that she chose to advocate for mental health during her husband’s gubernatorial campaign. Many people she met told her of the state’s lack of services.

She also was the first first lady to address the World Health Organization, underscoring her goals during her tenure in the East Wing. “I knew I had to have something to do besides coffee and teas,” Carter said. “I had worked all my life, and I wanted something to do that was significant.”

One of her major accomplishments as first lady was seeing through passage of mental health legislation, which her husband signed in the month before his bruising re-election loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980. The bill, the first such legislation ever passed by Congress, provided grants to community mental health centers.

As recounted in Jonathan Alter’s book, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter A Life, the first lady worked the phones with lawmakers to pass the legislation. At the bill signing, the president recalled that when he and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) were engaged in a bitter primary battle that year, he would “come in and find Rosalynn communicating very intimately about the Mental Health Systems Act.”

The Reagan administration rolled back the bill, but it still proved influential in elevating the importance of mental health at the federal level, and some of its provisions ultimately were part of the Affordable Care Act, Alter wrote.

Rosalynn Carter also enhanced some of the social aspects of her role, organizing the first telecast of In Performance at the White House, launching the ongoing PBS series that initially featured Vladimir Horowitz, Leontyne Price and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

After the defeat in 1980, the Carters founded the Carter Center with her husband in 1982, devoted to solving world health problems, monitor elections and advocate for human rights. She traveled with her husband on missions to dozens of countries, including North Korea and Cuba, as well as to hotspots suffering the ravages of war and famine. She established the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program to continue the work she had done while her husband was governor of Georgia and later president. She also founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers at Georgia Southwestern State University. She also was the author of five books.

Born in Plains, GA on Aug. 18, 1927, Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was the first of four children. Her father, Wilburn Edgar Smith, died when she was a teenager, forcing her to help her mother, Frances Allethea Murray. raise the family. She had been friends with Ruth Carter, Jimmy Carter’s younger sister, in the summer of 1945, when the future president was on leave from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Ruth Carter who recommended that Rosalynn and her brother go out on a double date with her and her boyfriend.

According to Alter’s book, Jimmy went to pick up Rosalynn and was instantly smitten. Nearly a half a century later, he even wrote a poem about the moment:

I’d pay to sit behind herm blind to what

was on the screen, and watch the image flicker

upon her hair.

I’d glow when her diminished voice would clear

my muddled thoughts, like lightning flashing in

a gloomy sky.

They were married the following year, on July 7, 1946.

In an interview with the AP just before their 75th wedding anniversary, Jimmy Carter said that marrying Rosalynn Smith was the most important decision he made. “My biggest secret is to marry the right person if you want to have a long-lasting marriage,” he said.

She said, “Jimmy and I are always looking for things to do together,” while adding that giving the other “some space” was also important.

The Carters surprised many in Plains in September when they ventured out of their modest home to ride in an SUV through the Peanut Festival parade. It was their last public appearance.

Rosalynn Carter is survived by three other children — Jack, Jeff, and Amy — and 11 grandchildren and 14 great-children. A grandson died in 2015.

Funeral services have not yet been announced.

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