Rosalynn Carter, influential US First Lady and loyal confidante of President Jimmy Carter – obituary

Rosalynn Carter at the White House in 1977
Rosalynn Carter at the White House in 1977 - Bettmann
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Rosalynn Carter, who has died aged 96, was the wife of President Jimmy Carter and his closest confidante; though she outwardly conformed to the God-fearing, home-baking ideal of American womanhood, she probably had a greater influence on her husband than any First Lady in history and played a pivotal role in his rise to power.

Demure-looking and soft-spoken, with an accent out of Gone with the Wind, Rosalynn Carter played up her folksy, southern-country-girl credentials to notable effect. “Ah still pay for mah grocery bill,” she assured her audiences, after sweeping into town in an eight-car motorcade. “Ah know about prices because Ah’m still in touch.”

For good measure she assured the country’s evangelicals that she and her husband had a hotline to the Almighty: “Jimmy and Ah take turns reading the Bible to each other every night,” she claimed. “We take our problems to Jesus and we say, ‘Heah, Jesus, take care of mah problems.’” She was, she conceded, better at “getting closer to the people” than her husband. Certainly many considered her to be the better speaker.

Former US President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter waving to inaugural ball guests in January 1977
Former US President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter waving to inaugural ball guests in January 1977 - Shutterstock

She was a lot tougher than her home-spun public image suggested, a fact that earned her the nickname the “Steel Magnolia”. She attended cabinet meetings and briefings and represented her husband at ceremonial and sometimes even political occasions. Their Wednesday business lunches together were an immovable fixture in Carter’s official diary and she made no secret of the fact that he sought her advice on all his major decisions, speeches and appointments. Memos with “Rosie-what think?” scrawled in the margin flowed from the presidential desk. She was, he said, “an almost equal extension of myself”.

To some extent, Rosalynn Carter followed Eleanor Roosevelt’s example and used her position to press her own causes, particularly the treatment of people with mental illnesses. While her husband was governor of Georgia, she served on a state commission to improve services for the mentally handicapped and mentally ill and oversaw the initiation of reforms that improved services for them.

As First Lady, she served as honorary chairman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, which led to sweeping reforms of mental health legislation implemented in the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. She testified on the Commission’s behalf before the Senate Subcommittee on Health in 1979.

Rosalynn Carter at work in the White House, with her personal assistant, Madeline MacBean,  March 1977
Rosalynn Carter at work in the White House, with her personal assistant, Madeline MacBean, March 1977 - Shutterstock

She represented the president at the inaugurations of new Bolivian and Ecuadorian presidents, at the funeral of Pope Paul VI, and greeted Pope John Paul II on her husband’s behalf on his first visit to America in 1979. The same year when Cambodian refugees, fleeing persecution by the Khmer Rouge, began pouring over the border into Thailand, she was instrumental in urging the appointment of a co-ordinator to oversee the UN relief effort and in prompting the creation of a central clearing house for all donated aid. She herself raised millions of dollars for the cause and persuaded her husband to increase national quotas for refugees.

But she ranged more widely in a way that provoked criticism that she was straying outside the accepted confines of her role. In 1977 she undertook one of the most overtly political international missions ever assumed by a First Lady, touring Jamaica, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela as her husband’s personal representative, and holding meetings with political leaders on issues including human rights, arms reduction, beef exports, drug trafficking, nuclear energy and weaponry. In 1979, it was her influence that persuaded Carter to order an embargo on Iranian oil, after the taking of American hostages in Iran.

Less kindly sectors of the Washington media did not buy into her folksy charm, noting that while she professed a lack of interest in fashion, she had had a face lift, and pointing out that this “ordinary” wife and mother had the biggest personal staff of any First Lady. (It was during her tenure that the federal government formally recognised the role as an official position, albeit one undefined by the US Constitution, when automatic congressional appropriation was enacted for her office.) Nor did they forget to remind her of the occasion when she slipped into Vice-President Walter Mondale’s chair at a cabinet meeting, when he was absent.

If Rosalynn Carter was guilty of the sin of hubris, she was quickly brought down to earth when her husband suffered a shattering defeat in the 1980 presidential election. With the president confined to the White House during the Iranian hostage crisis, she registered his candidacy in the New Hampshire primary and toured the country making policy speeches on his behalf throughout the 1980 primary season. In the presidential election, she warned large rallies of the dangers of electing Carter’s Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. But all to no avail.

Rosalynn Carter aged 12
Rosalynn Carter aged 12 - Shutterstock

The first of four children, Rosalynn Smith was born on August 18 1927 in the small town of Plains, Georgia, where her father ran a small farm, operated a motor repair shop and drove the school bus.

When she was 13, her father died and her mother took on various jobs – dressmaker, dairy farm worker, grocery store assistant and finally town postmistress – to support the family. As the oldest child, Rosalynn took over many of the household chores and the responsibility for looking after her younger siblings. She also helped her mother with the sewing and had a part-time job in a local beauty parlour. Although life was hard, she completed high school and enrolled in Georgia Southwestern College at Americus to do a secretarial course.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter after their wedding in 1946
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter after their wedding in 1946 - Shutterstock

In 1945, after her first year at college she began going out with Jimmy Carter, a local boy who had recently graduated from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. She had fallen in love with a photograph she had seen of him wearing his midshipman’s uniform. He was equally smitten: “She’s the girl I want to marry,” Carter told his mother after his first date. They married in 1946.

The young couple moved to Norfolk, Virginia, Ensign Carter’s first posting after graduation, and for the next few years as their three sons were born (their only daughter, Amy, was born later in 1967), they moved around between postings. But when his father died in 1953, Carter left the navy and returned to Plains to run the family’s failing peanut, fertiliser and seed enterprise. Rosalynn soon found herself working full-time, assuming responsibility for the financial side of the business without drawing a salary, while her husband ran the production side of things.

When Carter ran for the Georgia Senate in 1962 she took charge of his campaign correspondence and, after he was elected, managed the family business alone while he was away in Atlanta. In 1970, during his successful bid for the governorship, she took to the stump, touring the state in support of her husband.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter with their three sons
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter with their three sons - Shutterstock

She not only assumed the traditional role of a governor’s spouse as hostess, she oversaw the landscaping of the grounds and wrote a book about the governor’s residence and took responsibility for his accounts. For two years before her husband won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, she criss-crossed the country on her own to raise her husband’s public profile, sometimes turning up unannounced at local radio or television stations to speak about his views on current issues.

After Carter’s defeat in 1980, they returned to Plains, where they wrote books about their experiences and founded the Carter Centre. Rosalynn Carter continued to campaign on social programmes, served on many public and charitable bodies, won numerous awards, and supported her husband on his worldwide peace and humanitarian missions. Her autobiography, First Lady From Plains, was published in 1984.

Rosalynn Carter enjoyed fly-fishing, bird-watching, swimming, tennis, cycling and sewing.

She is survived by her husband and by their three sons and a daughter.

Rosalynn Carter, born August 18 1927, died November 19 2023

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