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Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter: From mental health to Camp David to the campaign trail, she made her mark

Rosalynn Carter broke new ground as a political partner and established herself as one of the nation's most influential presidential spouses.

Paul Costello
Opinion contributor

I have an indelible image of Rosalynn Carter in my mind. She is sitting aboard an Air Force jet late at night and everyone on the aircraft – staff, Secret Service, Air Force stewards, journalists – is exhausted and asleep. We had left Andrews Air Force Base before dawn, hitting three or four cities during the rough and tumble 1980 presidential reelection campaign. We were on our way to an overnight stop somewhere in the United States.

Aside from the Air Force pilots, Mrs. Carter is the only one awake. As I open my bleary eyes, I see her face captured by the pin light from above her seat. She’s mouthing words and quietly uttering phrases. At the end of a grueling day of handshakes, press conferences, meeting crowds and local politicians, she’s studying Spanish, a language she is determined to master. It’s a picture of Rosalynn Smith Carter – who passed away Sunday morning at her home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96 – that I’ll never forget. Disciplined, focused, dutiful and resolute. 

First Lady Rosalynn Carter on her solo 1977 trip to Latin America.

I could never imagine Jimmy without “Rosie,” as he affectionately called his wife of 77 years. At age 75, asked to name the most important thing he had ever done, the and the answered in two words: “.”

A novice turned full political partner 

A number of years ago my wife and I attended a donor’s event for the Carter Center in Atlanta. There was a trip to Plains where the Carters still live and an evening barbecue and square dance on the town’s main street. It was homey and authentic and like the Carters, no flash, gimmicks or glitz. The only cloud that evening was Rosalynn’s absence. The former president attended alone as in Atlanta. (It came out later, she was precariously close to death.)

President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter at an inaugural ball in Washington, D.C., in 1977.

Carter danced a first round with a random female partner, taking the appropriate steps from the caller. After that, he quickly disappeared. The next morning, speaking to a group of us at his boyhood home just outside the center of Plains, he volunteered that he had retired early the night before as he didn’t feel right dancing with another woman with Rosalynn not there. It was a sweet remark, touching for its manners, gentlemanly and old school but no surprise.

Whether it was his run , his ill-fated or his larger victories, first as governor of Georgia and then as president of the United States, this determined woman was always beside her husband as his political partner – writing letters, knocking on doors, making phone calls, extolling her husband’s virtues and touting his experience. Through persistence, determination and downright guts, she evolved from a novice campaigner who admitted to often being nauseous and trembling before a speech, into a formidable presence on the international stage as first lady.

First Lady Rosalynn Carter on her solo 1977 trip to Latin America.

'I told Jimmy it’s really rough out here'

Lost in the years since the Carter presidency are details, big and small, that defined Mrs. Carter’s unique influence as first lady. She traveled thousands of miles, domestically and internationally, representing her husband.

She relished taking on the challenges of presidential envoy, most notably on her first solo trip abroad on a groundbreaking tour of in June 1977. There, breaking from the traditional social role of a presidential spouse, she met one on one with foreign leaders to advance the cause of human rights, a cornerstone of Carter’s foreign policy.

As first lady she became her husband’s most fervent political evangelist, and it seemed as though she was always on the road as marketer in chief for his administration.

A powerful fundraiser in the 1978 midterm congressional elections and an intense campaigner, she was a vital ingredient in her husband’s success as a politician. She liked nothing more than being a sounding board, traveling the country as Carter’s eyes and ears and bringing him back the unvarnished reality of the nation’s temperature, warm or cold.

President Jimmy Carter kisses first lady Rosalynn Carter at Camp David, Md., as he boards a helicopter to Washington on May 10, 1979.

On one such trip, the temperature might have been just a bit too hot. As the Air Force jet was leveling off at 35,000 feet, she relayed to us, three staff traveling with her, that she had just spoken to the president.

“I told Jimmy it’s really rough out here,” inflation and the Iran hostages were taking their toll on his political fortunes. “Everyone beating up on you.”

Rather than listen, Carter interrupted, telling her he didn’t want to hear it. But she thought he needed to hear it and she told him so. It illustrated to me that even dedicated and loving spouses bear stresses inside the presidential pressure cooker.

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Rosalynn Carter was no mere footnote as a first lady

I’m often surprised that Rosalynn Carter is not seen as I see her and ranked higher for significance and substance as a first lady. To me, she broke new ground as a political partner and established herself as one of the nation’s most influential presidential spouses.

From the successes of her husband’s campaign and her substantial efforts to reform the nation’s fractured to the momentous breakthrough in Israeli-Egyptian relations at the Camp David summit, Rosalynn Carter was there and made her mark. She was no mere footnote as a presidential mate.

Rosalynn Carter plays cards with Paul Costello, her assistant press secretary, on a plane trip during her time as first lady.

Journalist and playwright Lawrence Wright, who wrote the play "" about the 13-day summit that brought about the peace accords between Israel and Egypt, told me: “Mrs. Carter’s influence at the Camp David summit is underappreciated. It was she who suggested that the president bring the parties to Camp David in the first place. Moreover, during the summit, she served as a kind of emotional back channel, especially for (Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat, who vented his frustration to her.”

The loss of the presidency to Ronald Reagan in 1980 was her period of extreme sadness. She couldn’t imagine the American people would reject Carter and never believed he'd be defeated by the former actor whom she thought had neither the substance nor intellect to be president.

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In her autobiography, "," she wrote that as election night set in and a loss for Carter was inevitable, someone noted Carter’s reserve: “Mr. President, you’re a great example, you don’t seem bitter at all.” Rosalynn responded, "."

To be sure, she and her husband established a post-presidency that has been heralded as triumphant and historical. At the Carter Center, they brought to resource-limited countries around the globe, and her ongoing mental health advocacy was sustained and noteworthy.

What I will remember is not "a steel magnolia," as she often was called by the media, but a compassionate, intuitive and insightful woman. Adventurous, too, and funny.

From the kitchen window of their home in Plains, you could see the burial plots for both Mrs. Carter and the former president. The grassy field is land now run by the National Park Service. The 39th president of the United States will be laid to rest there amid a clump of bushes above a pond. Now his Rosie will be, too.

Paul Costello

Paul Costello was assistant press secretary to Rosalynn Carter from July 1977 to January 1981.

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