Rosalynn Carter's credentials as a world-class humanitarian are beyond question. Through her work with children, as a human rights crusader, a mental health advocate and more, the former First Lady has improved the lives of millions in her own country and around the world. Evaluating her achievements apart from those of her more famous husband, however, is nearly impossible, so intertwined have their lives and work been from the start.
The Archetypal "Good Girl"
"Jimmy and I grew up three years and three miles apart," she begins her memoir, First Lady from Plains, "he on a farm in the 'country,' and I... in a simple white frame house in the middle of Plains." She was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on August 18, 1927. Her father drove a school bus, ran an auto repair shop, and managed a small farm. Friends and neighbors remember her as the archetypal "good girl." She was shy, studious, and always well-behaved. As her mother once put it, Rosalynn was "the kind of girl who could wear a white dress all day and keep it clean." But as she later wrote, it wasn't easy. "Even at [an early] age, the burden I put on myself of always having to do well began to be heavy. I knew I wasn't perfect, but I didn't want my Daddy to know."
The Smiths and the Carters
The Carter family was always part of Rosalynn's life. With no girls in town her own age, she became best friends with Ruth Carter, Jimmy's younger sister. When Rosalynn's father fell seriously ill, Jimmy's mother Lillian was often in the house nursing him, and she spent many nights at the Carter house in Archery. Just before her father died, when she was twelve, Rosalynn promised him she'd go to college. Despite working to help her mother support the family, she kept her promise, graduating as valedictorian of her class before attending Georgia Southwestern junior college.
But her college plans were soon interrupted by romance. When visiting Ruth, she would write, "I couldn't keep my eyes off the photograph of her idolized, older brother pinned up on her bedroom wall. I thought he was the most handsome young man I had ever seen." Though Jimmy had always ignored his sister's best friend, one day in the summer of 1945 he asked her to go to the movies. When he got back from their date, Jimmy remembered, "Mother asked if I liked her, and I was already sure of my answer when I replied, 'She's the girl I want to marry.'" The following summer, a few weeks after Jimmy graduated from Annapolis, his hope was realized before a gathering of family and friends at the Plains Baptist Church.
Married life didn't start out easy for the teenager who had never strayed far from Plains. With her husband away at sea most of the time, Rosalynn found herself alone in Norfolk, Virginia, taking care of herself and, a year after their wedding, their first baby, John William ("Jack"). More Navy assignments and two more sons followed in the next few years, and Rosalynn grew more confident. In their spare time, the Carters enjoyed listening to classical music, took art classes and studied Spanish. Jimmy's career was progressing well. In 1952, he was accepted into Admiral Hyman Rickover's elite nuclear program, and that fall the Carters moved to Schenectady, New York where the Navy's first nuclear sub reactor was being built.
Back to Georgia
In 1953, after eleven years in the navy, Jimmy made a decision that would change everything for the Carters: when Earl Carter died after a brief struggle with cancer, Jimmy decided to move back to Plains and take his father's place. "I argued. I cried. I even screamed at him," Rosalynn remembered. "I loved our life in the Navy and the independence I had finally achieved. I knew it would be gone if we went home to live in the same community with my mother and Jimmy's mother. Plains had too many ghosts for me." And though she resisted, "Jimmy would have none of it. His mind was made up, and he is a very stubborn man."
An Unequal Partner
Though she admits she "pouted for about a year," Rosalynn slowly built a satisfying life for herself and her family. Before long the wife and mother had added "accountant" to her resume, and as she says, "it was not too long before I knew as much or more about the business on paper then he did." With her help, Carter's Warehouse grew into a prosperous business. In 1961 the Carters built a comfortable new house in Plains. They enjoyed playing golf, socializing with friends and going on vacations. Then, once again, Jimmy stirred things up: on Monday, October 1, 1962 -- his 38th birthday -- he got up and put on his Sunday pants, announcing that he was going to run for the Georgia State Senate. "Rosalynn had no idea," the president later said. "She thought that someone had died, that I was going to a funeral... In retrospect, that's inconceivable to me... But the fact that I didn't consult with her was the way we were living then... [before] we really evolved an equal relationship in our lives."
Starting in Politics
Beginning with this first campaign in 1962, Rosalynn Carter was as instrumental in her husband's political career as she had been in building the business and raising their family. When he lost the state senate race due to documented fraud and corruption in the voting process, she helped him appeal and overturn the result. While he served in Atlanta she took care of the business at home. When Jimmy decided to make a run for governor in 1966 against long odds, she helped him campaign all over Georgia. And when he lost, she was right with him, setting their sights on the 1970 election. He finally won after a grueling, four-year campaign -- in the midst of which she gave birth to their fourth child, Amy Lynn.
Looking back, Rosalynn considers the transition from Plains to the Atlanta governor's mansion more difficult than the move she would make to the White House six years later. "She had to learn her own voice, how to project, how to make a speech, how to win people over, how to deal with legislators on her issues," says her son Chip. Once again, though, she proved up to the task. "I loved it," she remembers, "it was one of the nicest times in my life." It was a good thing, too, because before she had been first lady of Georgia for two years, her husband had decided to run for president in 1976.
Jimmy's Greatest Asset
Many in the presidential campaign considered Rosalynn his greatest political asset. "She has never put a foot wrong politically," says Carter associate and biographer Peter Bourne. "When she went to do an interview, we never had any concern, because we knew that she would not make a mistake." Jimmy liked to say during the 1976 campaign that his wife was "an equal extension of myself." As biographers Bruce Mazlish and Edwin Diamond wrote, "Their outward similarities of character appear to be so noticeable that one interviewer after talking to each of them separately declared that he had just met 'two Jimmy Carters.'"
Popular First Lady
Once the White House was won, Rosalynn Carter set about becoming one of the most popular first ladies in recent history. Less than a month after the inauguration, she announced a new President's Commission on Mental Health, an issue she had worked on since the late 60s. In June she represented the administration on a major trip to Latin America, where the president had ambitious plans to improve relations. But even when she was not out front on a project, Rosalynn was an important adviser to her husband. As Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley observed, "No first lady, up until then in American history, had as important a role as Rosalynn Carter, in the sense of her husband's decision making ... she was probably his number one advisor in the White House." And as Carter biographer E. Stanly Godbold observed, "She was a very close advisor to him. But it wasn't as controversial as Nancy Reagan, partly because she kept such a low profile... she did it in her quiet, southern, south Georgia way, and it was probably less offensive to the American public."
Return to Plains
Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, after a campaign in which Rosalynn and Vice President Walter Mondale had carried much of the burden for the beleaguered president. Depressed by their very public rejection, the Carters returned to Plains in January 1981, unsure of what they would do with the rest of their lives. They both spent the first year writing their memoirs -- hers spent more weeks on the bestseller list than his -- and making plans for a presidential library. Then, as Rosalynn remembers, "One night I woke up and Jimmy was sitting straight up in the bed... And I said, 'What's the matter?' ... And he said, 'I know what we can do at the library. We can have a place to resolve conflicts.' And so that was the germ of the idea for what became the Carter Center."
The Carter Center
Building on the signature achievement as president – the Camp David Accords -- the Carters set about creating what former Secretary of State Dean Rusk has called a "mini United Nations in Atlanta," a place where warring factions might find peaceful resolutions to conflicts. But over the years, largely through Rosalynn's efforts, the work of the Carter Center has expanded to include a wide variety of programs promoting human rights, democracy, and global health. The Carters have spearheaded the effort to eradicate diseases affecting people in the developing world, most notably African Guinea worm. Mental health and children's issues have remained Mrs. Carter's particular area of expertise, and she oversees a variety of programs in these areas. But she is also deeply involved in her husband's projects, including dangerous missions to mediate disputes in places like Bosnia and North Korea. Whenever television cameras follow a Carter Center trip, it is the Carters, not merely the president, they capture.
"Rosalynn is not the same Rosalynn Carter that I first knew in Plains, Georgia," observes Warren Fortson, a longtime friend of the Carters. "I don't know anybody who has grown as much and as phenomenally, in my opinion, as Rosalynn has. That's not to say Jimmy hasn't grown. But... Rosalynn in many respects is just a totally different person than I first knew her."
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?