First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 96, Has Died

Pop Culture

It’s hard to remember now, due to both the rosy hues of time and the personalities and pratfalls of subsequent First Ladies, but Rosalynn Carter, wife of Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, was one tough customer. History has smoothed her edges so that many recall her, vaguely, as a sweet but sturdy Southern woman—if not a belle, then someone who seemed nice enough but was in no way a world-beater, nothing like the forever-thwarted Hillary Clinton or the supremely confident Michelle Obama.

Part of this misguided legacy has to do with geographical bias. Rosalynn Carter—who passed away Sunday, November 19, after having been diagnosed with dementia—came from small-town Georgia, like her husband, and upon their taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, political Washington came down with a bad case of what the writer Nicholas Lemann has called rubophobia. The Carters were dismissed as rednecks, pure and simple. They spoke with Southern accents. They had run a peanut farm. Rosalynn wore the same dress she had worn to her husband’s 1971 Georgia gubernatorial ball for his presidential fête in 1977. (Worse, it came from someplace called Jason’s in someplace called Americus, Georgia.) The couple banned hard liquor from White House dinners. “I just don’t want to,” Rosalynn told a skeptical reporter for The New York Times. “Not for religious reasons. I just don’t want to. Besides, I’m saving the taxpayers’ money.” In fact, the Carters were big on praying too, and, perhaps worse, in the eyes of their detractors, they were sincere in their faith. Maybe it’s no wonder that the excesses of the Reagan years came as something of a relief in the Carters’ wake, and why Rosalynn’s fuddy-duddy reputation persists.

But she never was that, really. It is useful to recall that in 1977 and 1979 a Gallup poll designated Rosalynn the most popular woman in the world among Americans, and in 1980 she tied for the same honor with Mother Teresa, whose reputation has since suffered blows. Reading over several biographical accounts in recent days, what has come through most is how Rosalynn Carter managed to be both partner and individual. She was a woman of a generation that could (almost but not quite) operate independently, a bridge between the First Ladies who were silent helpmates and those who could (almost) act as individuals in their own right. Though it isn’t frequently noted, the Carters presaged the package deal later offered by Bill and Hillary Clinton.

She was the right person at the right time for that societal shift. Eleanor Rosalynn Smith (pronounced “Rose-a-lynn,” never “Roz-a-lynn”) grew up in modest circumstances in Plains, Georgia, wearing clothes made by her dressmaker mother. She was devoted to her father, an auto mechanic and bus driver, who encouraged her to excel in high school, which she did, and to go on to college and find wider horizons. He died of leukemia when Rosalynn was 13, and she was driven to fulfill his ambitions for her. (“My childhood really ended at that moment,” she would later write in her autobiography, First Lady from Plains, of the moment he told her about his illness.)

The road to that wider world appeared in the form of a US Naval Academy student by the name of James Earl Carter Jr., whom she started dating in 1945. (They had met years before, when Carter was three, and his mother, an enterprising nurse who came to be known as “Miz” Lillian, helped deliver Rosalynn.) Their love-at-almost-first-sight story became a staple of news reports from the time Jimmy started running for public office, and, by the time he was elected president, was part of a romantic gloss that feature writers so adore. The tale has staying power because it was true. Yes, Rosalynn was royally peeved when, in 1953, Jimmy gave up his naval career (and the travels she loved) to run the family’s peanut farm in Plains after Carter’s father died. However, that was the beginning of the collaboration that eventually landed Jimmy in the Georgia State Senate and then the governor’s mansion. “We developed a partnership when we were working in the farm supply business, and it continued when Jimmy got involved in politics,” Rosalynn told the Associated Press. “I knew more on paper about the business than he did. He would take my advice about things.” Jimmy didn’t argue. “The best thing I ever did was marrying Rosalynn,” he said in a Carter Center interview in 2015. “That’s the pinnacle of my life.”

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