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Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn and Jimmy: A close White House partnership redefined the role of first lady

Last month, one of Jimmy Carter's closest aides was marveling at how the 99-year-old former president was still hanging on to life, eight months after announcing he entered hospice care.

"I think he doesn't want to die until Rosalynn does," the aide told me. That was not a medical diagnosis, to be sure, but it was a commentary on what was not only the longest presidential marriage but one of the closest partnerships in the history of the White House.

Rosalynn Carter, who died Sunday, kept the books when her husband left the Navy to take over his father's struggling peanut business in their hometown of Plains, Georgia. She was his sounding board when he jumped into politics and ran for governor of the Peach State, first losing in 1966 and then winning in 1970.

Jimmy Carter gets a hug from his wife Rosalynn Carter after the third Presidential debate on Oct. 22, 1976 in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Six years later, when the man mocked as "Jimmy Who?" managed to oust a sitting president, Gerald Ford, Rosalynn Carter defined her own distinctive role as first lady. She was more politically engaged than predecessors Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower, and she eschewed the high fashion and culture role that Jackie Kennedy had embraced. She wore to the presidential balls the same blue gown she had worn to the gubernatorial inaugural celebrations.

Rosalynn Carter was the first presidential spouse to take an office of her own in the White House; every successor would do the same. To the chagrin of some in the punditry, she showed up for some Cabinet meetings, sitting along a wall and taking notes. She adopted mental health as her signature issue and led the White House Conference on Aging. She testified before Congress − something no first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt had done − and pressed for legislation.

As a reporter for Newsday, I covered her trip to Southeast Asia in November 1979, where she visited refugee camps in Thailand that had been overwhelmed by thousands of Cambodian refugees. At one point, she paused to hold an emaciated baby as she spoke to his desperate mother. The photograph made headlines around the world and brought attention to their plight.

Former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter in 2018 as they work with other volunteers of Habitat for Humanity in Mishawaka, Ind.

A few months later, I traveled with her on more pedestrian matters as she campaigned on the West Coast for her husband's embattled reelection bid.

She wasn't a great orator, and she was too painfully shy to be much of a pol, at least in public. Her reserved manner made her a tough interview subject for reporters but it may have protected her from some of the hackles raised when Hillary Clinton took on a central and much more public political role in the future presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton.

Even so, the word in Carter's circles was that Rosalynn had sharper political instincts than Jimmy did, and she acknowledged that she took his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980 harder.

"I don't like to lose," she wrote in her memoir, First Lady From Plains, published four years later.

After they left the White House in 1981, the Carters co-founded the Carter Center in Atlanta, embarking on decades of efforts to promote democracy and eradicate disease. They helped build houses in the United States and abroad for the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity.

And she never stopped trying to reduce the stigma of mental illness − a cause the Carter Center underscored six months ago. She had dementia, its written statement revealed, expressing hope that the disclosure might prompt more open conversations in other families, too.

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