Like Rosalynn, my Nana was a woman of quick wit, sharp instinct, unflappability, and grace. My grandfather, like President Jimmy Carter, had the good sense to marry a woman more than his equal, as all men do.
My grandfather terrorized me as a child, something he took grim pleasure in. A harsh, hovering presence, he favored brown double-breasted suits that, with his tall frame, broad shoulders, and severe demeanor, gave him the look of a mid-century gangster’s henchman (something that would prove, in later years, to be not a million miles from the truth.)
My Nana, on the other hand, was a constant source of warmth and comfort.
She also shared with Rosalyn an exquisite sense of glamour and style.
Every visit as a child in the seventies was a sensory overload that always began with being greeted at the door by a slim retiree immaculately dressed in the latest fashion. Bohemian jewelery, tight flared pants, and multi-hued chiffon blouses of yellow, brown, and her signature orange which matched her flame-bright ginger curls, a legacy of her Irish heritage. She rivaled the most fashion-forward young woman on any street well into her fifties, to the eternal delight of my favorite aunt — a fashion buyer for Harrods in London — and the chagrin of her husband.
Whenever Rosalynn Carter appeared on television back then, it was the same sense of style that always first caught my eye. Always beaming, always immaculate, I quite admired Mrs. Carter on a childish level.
Sitting with Barbara Walters in a white lace-trimmed dress or visiting displaced children in Vietnam in a contemporary beige pantsuit, the magnificent Mrs. Carter heralded a return to the chicness of Jackie Kennedy after the muted conservative fashion of the more traditionalist Pat Nixon.
Considering her achievements while her husband was in office and in the years that followed, these were shallow observations, but remember I was only five years old.
She was the very model of the modern First Lady, not content to dutifully support her husband, but to play an active role in his presidency, sitting in on Cabinet meetings and formally playing the part of international envoy and domestic surrogate long before Hillary Clinton perfected the art.
Her Cabinet attendance was driven not by a desire to inject herself in matters of state — she never spoke, only took notes — but to be informed first-hand about what she was hearing in the press.
“I couldn’t sit in front of the television every day and wonder and worry about what I was hearing,” she wrote in her autobiography, First Lady from Plains. “I wanted to know the truth.”
President Carter responded to these frustrations by inviting Rosalynn to sit in so “then you’ll know what’s going on and why we make the decisions.”
This participation informed the work she became best known for — using her pulpit to bring attention to issues facing people without much voice of their own in 1970s America, starting with a topic that was then, even more than now, a social taboo.
It was near-impossible in 1977 to discuss mental health. From the outset, Rosalynn Carter sought to change that.
In her first interview as First Lady, she shared with the New York Times her mission statement.
“For every person who needs mental health care to be able to receive it close to his home, and to remove the stigma from mental health care so people will be free to talk about it and seek help. It’s been taboo for so long to admit you had a mental health problem,” she said.
She chaired the President’s Commission on Mental Health which led to the passing of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. Despite opposition from Ronald Reagan — who fought the measures as Governor of California, then repealed most of the Act in the first year of his presidency — it marked a pivotal moment in destigmatizing mental illness.
Her advocacy continued long after leaving the White House. Today, the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism supplies journalists around the world with grants and resources to combat the stigma still surrounding the issue.
Improving mental health outcomes was first among her many intrinsically humanistic passions. Many assumed at the time that her motivation was driven by personal experience. It was not. Neither Rosalynn nor those around her had had to battle mental illness. It was simply the right thing to do.
Her personal experiences were a more direct influence on her advocacy for unpaid caregivers to those with disabilities and chronic or terminal illnesses. In 1940, Rosalynn had watched her mother care for her father as he battled leukemia, assisted by a close family friend, Lillian Carter, a registered nurse, and the mother of Rosalynn’s future husband.
(That would be far into the future, though. The young Rosalynn had no interest in Jimmy until, five years later, she would see him in uniform at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and become instantly smitten.)
“When I went to bed that night, I never wanted to wake up. I wanted to stay asleep and believe it was all a bad dream. But in the middle of the night Miss Lillian woke me and took me home. My father was dead of leukemia at the age of forty-four. My mother was thirty-four. The youngest of the four children, my sister, was only four. I was thirteen.”
Rosalynn helped as best she could — caring for her younger siblings and working in her mother’s dressmaking store to keep the family afloat. She assisted without complaint, but the strain on her family never left her.
Determined to ease the burden on the millions of Americans faced with similar challenges, she established the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers to advocate for initiatives, awareness, and public caregiving policy.
Her achievements in these areas, while instrumental, barely touch on her public work, not the least of which was her work with Habitat for Humanity. The Carters did not found this organization but they turbocharged it with their high profile and an unbridled joy in working alongside volunteers to build homes that could be purchased by the underprivileged for no profit, and paid for through interest-free loans. As with so much they did in their post-presidential years, the Carters worked hard to do what governments should — but would not — do.
All this without touching upon her political life and achievements, of which much more is still to be said. Beyond her charity-mindedness was a woman unafraid to act upon her sharp political instincts.
Jonathan Alter, the author of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life, the definitive biography of the 39th president, recalled “One achievement with contemporary resonance” that had escaped me in his New York Times eulogy. Alter’s piece is worth reading in its entirety.
Mrs. Carter, along with Betty Bumpers, the wife of Senator Dale Bumpers, traveled around the country and persuaded 33 state legislatures to change their laws to require proof of vaccination for children to enter school. This led to a joke in the late 1970s: Everywhere the first lady goes, kids cry — for fear of getting a shot.
Some among the press found it anathema that an unelected, unappointed participant should sit in on Cabinet meetings, but the criticism was tempered by a mighty regard for her ability. They nicknamed her ‘the steel magnolia’, in deference to an intellect and fortitude always accompanied by effortless poise and charm.
In another life, Rosalynn might have sought public office in her own right. She was pursued at least twice and rebuffed advances both times. In 1982, she quashed growing speculation she would be a candidate to replace outgoing Democratic Governor George Busbee. As anticipation built in 1998 over the prospect of Hillary Clinton’s ultimately successful bid to represent New York in the U.S. Senate and become the first former First Lady to run for political office, Rosalynn was asked if she would do the same in her home state.
“What would I have done in Washington,” she responded, “with Jimmy in Georgia?”
Instead, she spent her remaining years advocating for the many causes she felt needed more attention. Not just housing, mental health, and caregiving, but also women’s rights, election monitoring, and fighting disease in developing countries.
Eventually, a quieter life beckoned. Besides, her attention was needed closer to home. In 2015, Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with cancer. In February, he left their home in Plains, Georgia to enter hospice care at their family home. Three months later, Rosalynn was diagnosed with dementia. She joined Jimmy in hospice care on November 17. Two days later, the Carter Center made a sad announcement.
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, a passionate champion of mental health, caregiving, and women’s rights, passed away Sunday, Nov. 19, at 2:10 p.m. at her home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96. She died peacefully, with family by her side.
Someday, sooner than bears thinking about, we will have to farewell Jimmy Carter, too. He will then finally receive the credit he is due for doing what he could with what he had. Beset by high inflation, international unrest, an upstart primary challenge, and conflict in the Middle East — it all seems so eerily familiar — he played his best hand and we will remember that with a fondness and gratitude that we denied him in the decades since.
But with sadness, we will also recall that, in the days before the end, he will have had to see them through without his beloved Rosalynn by his side.
I think of Rosalynn and Jimmy and, again, my thoughts return to my grandparents.
A strident conservative, my grandfather was a staunch defender of Nixon in the wake of Watergate and praised Ronald Reagan’s policies, even if he considered the man himself to be an idiot. He would not have welcomed any comparison to Jimmy Carter.
For all his faults, my grandfather remained stoic and supportive in those later years, developing an uncharacteristic patience for my Nana as she rapidly succumbed to a heartbreaking form of dementia. Despite surviving seven heart attacks, he retained a surprising physical and mental fortitude. He stubbornly held on to life until his wife of more than sixty years was safely homed in a care facility close to my parents under the compassionate eye of The Sisters of Nazareth. My mother, who would herself become a widow within a year, was her primary caregiver.
A few months later, his job done, my grandfather quietly passed.