POLITICS & ELECTIONS

Rosalynn Carter, outspoken former first lady, dead at 96

Nov 19, 2023, 1:53 PM | Updated: 1:53 pm

This photo provided by the White House is the official portrait of first lady Rosalynn Carter in th...

This photo provided by the White House is the official portrait of first lady Rosalynn Carter in the Vermeil Room of the White House, Feb. 18, 1977. Carter, the closest adviser to Jimmy Carter during his one term as U.S. president and their four decades thereafter as global humanitarians, died Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. She was 96. (The White House via Associated Press)

(The White House via Associated Press)

ATLANTA (AP) — Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, the closest adviser to Jimmy Carter during his one term as U.S. president and their four decades thereafter as global humanitarians, has died at the age of 96.

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

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” Carter said in the statement. “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 more than 77 years, forging what they both described as a “full partnership.” Unlike many previous first ladies, Rosalynn sat in on Cabinet meetings, spoke out on controversial issues and represented her husband on foreign trips. Aides to President Carter sometimes referred to her — privately — as “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 spanned from 1977-1981.

Fiercely loyal and compassionate as well as politically astute, Rosalynn Carter prided herself on being an activist first lady, and no one doubted her behind-the-scenes influence. When her role in a highly publicized Cabinet shakeup became known, she was forced to declare publicly, “I am not running the government.”

Many presidential aides insisted that her political instincts were better than her husband’s — they often enlisted her support for a project before they discussed it with the president. Her iron will, contrasted with her outwardly shy demeanor and a soft Southern accent, inspired 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 landslide defeat in 1980, it was she, not the former president, who contemplated an implausible comeback, and years later she confessed to missing their life in Washington.

Jimmy Carter trusted her so much that in 1977, only months into his term, he sent her on a mission to Latin America to tell dictators he meant what he said about denying military aid and other support to violators of human rights.

She also had strong feelings about the style of the Carter White House. The Carters did not serve hard liquor at public functions, though Rosalynn did permit U.S. wine. There were fewer evenings of ballroom dancing and more square dancing and picnics.

Throughout her husband’s political career, she chose mental health and problems of the elderly as her signature policy emphasis. When the news media didn’t cover those efforts as much as she believed was warranted, she criticized reporters for writing only about “sexy subjects.”

As honorary chairwoman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she once 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 for improved mental health coverage, saying, “We’ve been working on this for so long, it finally seems to be in reach.”

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

“I used to come home and say to Jimmy, ‘Why are people telling me their problems?’ And he said, ‘Because you may be the only person they’ll ever see who may be close to someone who can help them,’” she explained.

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

“I was hesitant, not at all sure that I could be happy here after the dazzle of the White House and the years of stimulating political battles,” she wrote in her 1984 autobiography, “First Lady from Plains.” But “we slowly rediscovered the satisfaction of a life 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 funds for efforts to aid the mentally ill and homeless. She also wrote “Helping Yourself Help Others,” about the challenges of caring for elderly or ailing relatives, and a sequel, “Helping Someone With Mental Illness.”

Frequently, the Carters left home on humanitarian missions, building houses with Habitat for Humanity and promoting public health and democracy across the developing world.

“I get tired,” she said of her travels. “But something so wonderful always happens. To go to a village where they have Guinea worm and go back a year or two later and there’s no Guinea worm, I mean the people dance and sing — it’s so wonderful.”

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

“I depend on him when I have questions, when I’m writing speeches, anything, I consult with him,” she said.

She helped Carter recover several years later when he had hip replacement surgery 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 that he would forgo further medical interventions and begin end-of-life care.

Jimmy Carter is the longest-lived U.S. president. Rosalynn Carter was the second longest-lived of the nation’s first ladies, trailing only Bess Truman, who died at age 97.

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains on Aug. 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 parlor. “We were very poor and worked hard,” she once said, but she kept up her studies, graduating from high school as class valedictorian.

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

After a blind date, Jimmy told his mother: “That’s the girl I want to marry.” They wed in 1946, shortly after his graduation from Annapolis and Rosalynn’s graduation 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. By then, Carter was a state senator.

Navy life had provided Rosalynn 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 the day-to-day operations, keeping the books and weighing fertilizer trucks.

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

KSL 5 TV Live

Politics & Elections

A protestor holds a sign reading 'My Body My Choice' at a Women's March rally where Arizona Secreta...

Steve Peoples and Jonathan J. Cooper Associated Press

A near-total ban on abortion has supercharged the political dynamics of Arizona, a key swing state

Arizona was already expected to be one of the most closely contested states in November's U.S. presidential election. But a ruling this week instituting a near-total abortion ban supercharged the state's role, transforming it into perhaps the nation's most critical battleground.

12 hours ago

Manuel Rocha sitting at a desk smiling...

Denise Royal, Carlos Suarez and Ray Sanchez, CNN

Former US diplomat sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to spying for Cuba

Manuel Rocha, the former US ambassador to Bolivia who acted as a secret foreign agent of Cuba, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges Friday

1 day ago

Michael Cook, who was running for the Republican nomination for Spanish Fork's District 25 senate s...

Carlysle Price and Michael Houck, KSL TV

Former Senate candidate charged for refusing to leave a USPS while gathering signatures

Former Republican candidate Michael Cook is facing two charges after allegedly attempting to gather signatures in a federal building on March 29.

1 day ago

PALM BEACH, FLORIDA - APRIL 12: Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump and...

Lisa Mascaro and Jill Colvin, Associated Press

Trump gives support to embattled Speaker Mike Johnson at pivotal Mar-a-Lago meet

Donald Trump has given his support to embattled House Speaker Mike Johnson during a visit to the Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

1 day ago

Natalie Cline attends the monthly meeting for the Utah State Board of Education, the first since th...

Lindsay Aerts and Michael Houck, KSL TV

Salt Lake County Republicans will decide the political future of Natalie Cline

A few hundred Republicans in Salt Lake County will decide the political future of Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline during county convention on Saturday.

1 day ago

Michael Cook, who was running for the Republican nomination for Spanish Fork's District 25 senate s...

Lindsay Aerts

Spanish Fork Republican candidate for state senate disqualified as incumbent senator threatens lawsuit

A Republican senator is threatening a lawsuit claiming the Utah County Republican Party wasted his time and resources on a race that ultimately ended with his opponent being disqualified.

2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Rosalynn Carter, outspoken former first lady, dead at 96