Rosalynn Carter, first lady who championed mental health, dies at 96

She sat in on Cabinet meetings of her husband, Jimmy Carter, advised on policy issues and pushed Congress to pass mental health legislation

Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter at the Democratic National Convention at New York’s Madison Square Garden on July 15, 1976. (AP)

Rosalynn Carter, a close political and policy adviser to her husband, President Jimmy Carter, who created the modern Office of the First Lady and advocated for better treatment of the mentally ill during her years in the White House and for four decades afterward, died Nov. 19 at her home in Plains, Ga. She was 96.

The Carter Center in Atlanta, which announced her death, had revealed in May that she had dementia. On Friday, two days before her death, the center said she was in hospice care at home.

The Carters had been married for more than 77 years, the longest presidential marriage in U.S. history, and spent the final months of their time together at the family home in the town of Plains, in southwest Georgia. The former president decided in February to stop medical treatment for an aggressive form of melanoma skin cancer.

During her husbands 1976 presidential campaign, Mrs. Carter acquired the label steel magnolia, a reference to her soft-spoken Southern demeanor that disguised an ambitious and resolute nature.

Determined not to be relegated to a ceremonial role, she worked in the tradition of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to make herself an extension of the president and his policies. She was the first first lady to maintain an office in the East Wing of the White House and only the second, after Roosevelt, to testify in Congress.

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter died at the age of 96 on Nov. 19, at her home in Plains, Ga. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

In May and June 1977, President Jimmy Carter dispatched his wife on a diplomatic trip to Latin America that was substantive rather than social and unprecedented for a first lady. Her grueling trip took her to seven countries and across more than 12,000 miles in 13 days. Her mission was to explain American foreign policy to a part of the world that her husband believed the United States had neglected.

She engaged Central and South American government figures on issues that included human rights, beef exports, arms reduction, demilitarization, drug trafficking and nuclear energy. After each days talks, she filed a report with the State Department. At many of her meetings, she spoke in Spanish, having recently completed an intensive language course.

Mrs. Carter championed political veteran Sen. Walter F. Mondale (D-Minn.) as her husbands running mate and worked hard for issues that interested her personally: mental health, elder care and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Despite her professional accomplishments, some women doubted the strength of her commitment to feminism. Although she never advocated repealing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized abortion, she considered abortion objectionable on moral and religious grounds.

Mrs. Carter encouraged her husband to bring Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt together at the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland for peace talks in 1978. Dividing her time between Camp David and the White House, she provided support and advice as her husband brokered a historic peace agreement between the two nations.

It was Mrs. Carter, responding to plunging poll numbers for the Carter White House in 1979, who suggested to her husband that he shake up his Cabinet and give a crisis of confidence speech to the nation. While Jimmy Carter never used the word, it became widely known as the malaise speech.

In her memoir, First Lady From Plains (1984), she described herself as much more political than Jimmy and more concerned about popularity and winning reelection. She said she urged her husband to postpone certain controversies, such as the Panama Canal treaties or some of the Mideast decisions, until his second term. She spoke repeatedly of her thirst for victory. I dont like to take a chance on losing, she wrote. I always want to win!

In a 2018 interview with The Washington Post, Mrs. Carter said she was more upset than her husband when he lost his 1980 reelection bid to Ronald Reagan.

I hate to lose, she said.

The Carters close working relationship began in the farming community of Plains, where they knew each other virtually from birth. They returned to Plains after Jimmy Carter left a promising Navy career to take over the family peanut warehouse when his father died. She was a full partner in every decision her husband made in regard to the business.

Years later, in the decades after Jimmy Carters loss to Reagan, the couple continued their partnership as co-founders of the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization committed to human rights and the elimination of suffering around the world.

From Plains to Washington

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on Aug. 18, 1927, on her mothers family farm outside Plains, then a village of about 600 people. When she was 13, her father, a mechanic and school bus driver, died of leukemia. Left with only a small life insurance policy and a meager pension, her mother made ends meet by taking in sewing and working part time in a grocery store before becoming the Plains postmistress.

Rosalynn, the eldest daughter, looked after the younger children, helped with the sewing and earned spending money by shampooing hair in a beauty parlor. She also was valedictorian of her graduating class.

She commuted to Georgia Southwestern College, a two-year college in nearby Americus, where she took secretarial courses and was active with the Young Democrats. Her best friend was Ruth Carter, the younger sister of Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter, three years older than Rosalynn, took little notice of his sisters friend until the summer of 1945, just before he was to return for his final year at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. After one date, the dashing young midshipman announced to his mother that Rosalynn was the girl he intended to marry.

Following a whirlwind courtship, they married on July 7, 1946, a few weeks after graduation ceremonies at Annapolis. Rosalynn was a few weeks short of 19; he was 21.

The young wife was eager to get out of Plains and looked forward to broader horizons in the company of her naval officer husband. For the next seven years, Mrs. Carter followed her husband to a succession of postings as Jimmy Carter advanced toward becoming a submarine commander. They also had three sons during the years 1947 to 1952.

The arc of their married life suddenly changed in 1953, when Mrs. Carters father-in-law died of cancer, and Jimmy Carter decided to give up his Navy career and return to the family business in Plains. Rosalynn Carter hated the idea.

I argued, I cried. I even screamed at him, she wrote in her memoir. I loved our life in the Navy and the independence I had finally achieved. I knew it would be gone if I went home to live in the same community with my mother and Jimmys mother.

Inseparable: On their 75th anniversary, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter celebrate a record-setting love story back where it all started

Her tears and screaming were unavailing. In 1954, the Carters returned to Plains. I thought the best part of my life had ended, she recalled in her autobiography. But Jimmy turned to me with a smile and said cheerfully, Were home!

They returned to Plains in time to endure one of the worst droughts in Georgia history. The peanut crop failed, the cotton and corn crops burned up, and their income that first year was less than $200.

Since there was no money to hire help, they plunged side by side into their work at the warehouse Rosalynn keeping the books, Jimmy working in the warehouse and drumming up business from area peanut farmers. The rains came in 1955, and the husband-and-wife team gradually turned the business around.

In 1962, Jimmy Carter ran for a seat in the Georgia state Senate, and his wife took charge of all his campaign correspondence. After he was elected, she managed the family business during the three months of the year he was away in Atlanta.

She also played a major role in his first campaign for governor in 1966, a campaign that resulted in a bitter defeat in the Democratic primary to Lester Maddox, a fiery segregationist who had made his reputation by waving a pistol and brandishing an ax handle at African Americans who tried to eat at his Atlanta restaurant. A year later, the couple had their fourth child, Amy, who was born a few months after Mrs. Carter turned 40.

In addition to her husband and daughter, survivors include three sons, John W. Jack Carter, James E. Chip Carter III, and Donnel J. Jeff Carter; 11 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

Working behind the scenes

During her husbands early political campaigns, Mrs. Carter was content to work behind the scenes. After he was elected governor in 1970, she developed a newfound confidence in her capacity as the states official hostess and in her public-speaking obligations.

She developed an interest in mental health issues, in part because of childhood memories of a distant cousin in Plains who was in and out of a state mental institution.

She served as a member of the Governors Commission to Improve Service for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped. She helped establish 134 day-care centers for the states mentally disabled residents, and she volunteered at the Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta to gain further firsthand experience with the problems of the mentally ill.

In 1971, when we went to the Governors Mansion, I had thought we would be going home to Plains in 1975, because the governor of Georgia could not succeed himself, Mrs. Carter recalled. But we werent. Since early 1972, Jimmy had been quietly planning to run for president.

Carter had been, in essence, measuring himself against potential presidents who happened to come through Georgia and were political guests of the Carters. They included Sens. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), Henry M. Scoop Jackson (D-Wash.), George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) and Hubert H. Humphrey (Minn.), the Democratic Partys nominee in 1968.

When her husband made his candidacy official, she plunged in as usual in support of his political aspirations, although she recalled that when she told people during the early days of the campaign that he was running for president, she was often asked, President of what?

She campaigned for 18 months in a total of 42 states. She recalled answering questions about mental health, education, prison reform, the reorganization of government and the price of fertilizer.

Running as an outsider with a mandate to clean up Watergate-ridden Washington, the relatively unknown governor from Georgia secured the Democratic nomination and the right to contest the Republican incumbent, Gerald Ford. In the early morning of Nov. 3, 1976, Ford conceded, and Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th president of the United States.

Mrs. Carter found life in the White House exhilarating, particularly during the early months, but she continued to maintain the parameters of the working partnership she and her husband had crafted years earlier. Throughout their four years in Washington, she kept the books, wrote the checks and kept track of income tax obligations.

With her husbands support and over the objections of others, Mrs. Carter expanded the role of the first lady. She attended Cabinet meetings, worked on mental health and other policy priorities, and formally created the Office of the First Lady in the East Wing with its own chief of staff.

There are very few people in this administration that I fear, an unnamed White House staffer told Newsweek. Rosalynn Carter is at the top of the list.

Mrs. Carter wrote in her memoir: Once the press and our persistent opponents heard about my attendance at the meetings, very soon it was rumored that I was telling Jimmy what to do! They obviously didnt know Jimmy! But I also think there was a not very subtle implication that Cabinet meetings were no place for a wife. I was supposed to take care of the house period.

The historic high point of the Carter administration was the signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978. Mrs. Carter recalled that she and her husband expected to stay at Camp David for three or four days as hosts of Begin and Sadat. They stayed 12 days, pushing past dejection, disappointment and dashed hopes to an agreement that outlined a framework for a comprehensive Middle East peace.

She was proud of her husband. Begin and Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year, she wrote in her memoir, but it was Jimmy who had made it possible. Jimmy Carter received a Nobel Peace Prize 24 years later for his post-presidential work on global conflict resolution and human rights advocacy.

As first lady, Mrs. Carter continued working on strategies for helping the mentally ill. I wanted to take mental illnesses and emotional disorders out of the closet, to let people know it is all right to admit having a problem without the fear of being called crazy, she wrote in her autobiography. If only we could consider mental illnesses as straightforwardly as we do physical illnesses, those affected could seek help and be treated in an open and effective way.

Her efforts were instrumental in congressional approval and funding for the Mental Health Systems Act of September 1980, the first major reform of federal, publicly funded mental health programs in nearly two decades.

Our celebration was brief, Mrs. Carter recalled in her book. Within a month Ronald Reagan was elected president, and with the change of administration, many of our dreams and the bulk of the funding for our program were gone. It was a bitter loss.

The mental health disappointment came toward the end of the Carter presidency. The beginning of the end was Iran, where, on the morning of Nov. 4, 1979, militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.

Mrs. Carter urged her husband to immediately enact an oil embargo, but when neither that action nor any other could gain the hostages quick release, public opinion turned against the administration.

With the president confined to the White House because of the hostage crisis, Mrs. Carter took to the campaign trail. She traveled the country as his representative during the winter and spring primary season of 1980. She also worked to woo supporters of his challenger, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass).

On election night, when it was clear that Jimmy Carter would lose overwhelmingly to the Republican nominee, Reagan, a White House staff member mentioned to the president that he didnt seem bitter. Mrs. Carter responded: Im bitter enough for the both of us.

I meant it, she wrote in her memoir. I was bitter at what I had seen on television for weeks that I thought was so unfair to Jimmy; bitter about the hostage situation dominating the news for the last few days before the election as the media celebrated the anniversary of the hostage capture; bitter at the opposition for deliberately misleading the American people; bitter that they blamed Jimmy for the hostage crisis when they should have praised him for his sound judgment and patience.

After Reagans inauguration in January 1981, the Carters went home to Plains, to the house they had built two decades earlier. Leaving the White House much sooner than they expected, they were profoundly frustrated by Jimmy Carters unfinished agenda and worried about the fate of the nation under Reagan.

The former president was 56, the former first lady was 53, and they had to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives, as they recounted in the book they co-wrote, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life (1987).

In 1982, they founded the Carter Center, where Mrs. Carter continued her involvement with mental health issues as chairwoman of the centers Mental Health Task Force. She wrote or co-wrote five books, mainly about caregiving and mental health.

She traveled around the world for the Carter Center on trips to promote human rights and peace initiatives and to monitor elections. She and her husband spent a week a year building homes for low-income people with Habitat for Humanity, and they built or remodeled more than 4,300 homes in 14 countries.

In the 2018 interview with The Post, she said that in a recent remodel of their home in Plains, she and the former president knocked down a bedroom wall themselves rather than letting the contractor do it. By that time, we had worked with Habitat so much that it was just second nature, she said.

Even well into their 90s, the Carters would walk at least a half-mile a day for exercise on the streets of the town where they both were born, and where they planned to be buried on their land beneath a pretty willow tree.

They conducted part of the 2018 interview while walking down West Church Street toward their home. Jimmy Carter pointed out the Plains United Methodist Church, where he first spotted his future wife. They went to a movie, and the next morning Carter told his mother that he was going to marry Rosalynn.

I didnt know that for years, she said with a smile, holding his hand.

They were asked if they wanted for anything.

I cant think of anything, Carter said, turning to his wife. And you?

Rosalynn Carter: The life of the former first lady

The latest: At the funeral of Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady was honored for her faith, family and public service. She was buried near the house that she and Jimmy Carter built in Plains, Ga., in 1961. Rosalynn Carter died at age 96 at the couples home on Nov. 19. Two days before her death, the Carter Center said she was in hospice care at home.

Redefining the role of first lady: Rosalynn Carter created the modern Office of the First Lady and advocated for better treatment of the mentally ill during her years in the White House and for four decades afterward. She also wrote or co-wrote five books, mainly about caregiving and mental health.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter: The Carters had been married for more than 77 years, the longest presidential marriage in U.S. history. Their love story blossomed in World War II and survived the searing scrutiny of political life. The final moments of Rosalynns life were spent with Jimmy at the family home in Plains.

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