Global power couple, best friends and life mates: Inside the bond between Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter

In spring 1955, Rosalynn Carter was doing what she had sworn to avoid when she married an ambitious Naval officer: keeping house and raising children in the same tiny town where they grew up.

Then Jimmy Carter called for help from his family’s peanut farming warehouse. The future U.S. President couldn’t manage on his own, and they had no money to hire employees. So his wife gathered their sons and went to answer the company phone. Soon she was managing finances and handling customers.

Before long, “I knew more on paper about the business than he did, and he would take my advice about things,” Rosalynn Carter told The Associated Press ahead of their 75th anniversary in 2021.

Their marriage was almost a decade old when she went to the warehouse, but that was perhaps the true beginning of a partnership that won the Georgia Governor’s office in 1970, the White House in 1976 and then propelled the Carters through four decades as global humanitarians. Undergirding that path was a small-town love story that spanned 77 years of marriage and two decades of family friendships before that.

Their shared journey ended Nov. 19 with Rosalynn Carter’s death at the age of 96. The former President, now 99, was with her when she died at their home in Plains, where they lived all their lives, with the exceptions of his college and Navy years, one gubernatorial term and their White House years from 1977-81.

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” Jimmy Carter said in a statement released upon her death by The Carter Center, which they co-founded in 1982 after leaving Washington. “She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

It is not known whether the 39th President, now mostly using a wheelchair and hospital bed in his 10th month of hospice care, will attend tributes that begin Monday. Those close to the family say they expect he will make every effort, especially for the final services: an invitation-only funeral Wednesday in Plains and private burial in a plot the couple eventually will share.

“It’s hard to think of one of them without the other,” said Jill Stuckey, a longtime friend who saw the couple often during Rosalynn Carter’s last months.

No ‘remaining differences between us’

Rosalynn Carter often campaigned separately from her husband to expand their reach: “If I go with Jimmy I just sit there,” she once said. “I can use my time better than that.”

As president, Jimmy Carter sent her abroad as an official diplomat. She attended Cabinet meetings and discussed what she heard with him in the residence. They avoided dancing with others at White House dinners and had nightly phone calls when they traveled separately.

After the presidency, they built The Carter Center together. They met with world leaders, monitored elections and fought disease in developing nations. Sometimes she took notes, other times spoke up. There are remote villages within the 145-plus countries they visited between them where children, many now adults, were named Jimmy or Rosalynn or Carter.

They read the Bible together each night, even over the phone, a practice that endured as they aged. Sometimes they read aloud in Spanish to stay proficient in their second language, even after their international travels waned. And they held hands often: at home, in church, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day in 1977, and as she lay on her deathbed in the home they built before his first legislative election in 1962.

“We don’t go to sleep with some remaining differences between us,” the former President told AP in 2021.

A cradle-to-grave relationship

The couple’s parents were neighbors in the mid-1920s. Lillian Carter, a nurse, delivered Eleanor Rosalynn Smith and a few days later brought young Jimmy Carter back to the Smith home to meet the baby. The couple’s earliest memories came after the Carters moved to a farm outside of town and Rosalynn became a close friend of Ruth Carter, Jimmy’s younger sister.

By the time he was at the U.S. Naval Academy, Ruth was working as matchmaker. Rosalynn said she first “fell in love with Jimmy’s picture” hung in Ruth’s bedroom. Then in the summer of 1945, when he was home from Annapolis, Jimmy agreed to a picnic with his sister and her friend, then a date with Rosalynn. Jimmy kissed her after a movie and the next morning told his mother he would marry Rosalynn Smith.

“I had never had a boy kiss me on a first date,” Rosalynn recalled.

Yet she saw seeds of something deeper than teenage romance. Usually shy, she found she “could talk to him, actually talk to him.” Teasing and flirting became letters to and from Annapolis, then his proposal. She rejected it, telling him she promised her father, who had died in 1940, that she would finish college.

After both graduated, they were married on July 7, 1946.

Jimmy Carter was a smitten newlywed, writing in poetry that his wife’s beauty struck songbirds into silence. But he didn’t view her as a true equal yet, decades later attributing that attitude to the social and religious mores of the era.

‘I never felt put upon’

Rosalynn Carter had dreams of becoming an architect but saw her husband’s Navy career as a way to escape rural life. Neither had intentions of returning to Plains, but when James Earl Carter Sr. died in 1953, his namesake son resigned his commission to move his family back to Georgia, where he took over the family farm. Jimmy Carter did not ask his wife. He remembered six decades later how “cool” she was to him for months. The dynamic did not thaw completely until she asserted herself as an indispensable business partner.

The future President still did not consult his wife when he launched his first political campaign. In that instance, however, she was on board and excited about his prospects. After he took his state Senate seat in Atlanta, she recognized the nature of their pairing.

“I was more of a political partner than a political wife, and I never felt put upon,” she said of staying behind in Plains to run the business and care for their children. “I only had to call him home once, when one of our old brick warehouses collapsed, dumping several hundred tons of peanuts into the street.”

As her husband ran for Governor, she reported back to him what voters were telling her, the beginning of her half-century of advocacy for better mental health treatment in America.

On the presidential trail, she could guide him more effectively than his aides. “Jimmy, don’t go into so much detail and use such big words,” she would tell him. “Just explain it to them the way you do to me.”

White House adviser Stuart Eizenstat said the former first lady had “uncanny political instincts.”

‘How many did she catch?’

The peaks of their political life forged what family and close friends remember as a bond that thrived not just on mutual respect but competitiveness.

“My grandparents were notoriously competitive about everything,” said eldest grandson Jason Carter, now Carter Center board chairman.

They raced to finish writing their next books or best the other in tennis, skiing or any other pursuit in their later years. Jason Carter laughed about fish mounts at the family’s mountain cabin as one flaunted their superior catch, only to be outdone by the other.

“‘How many did she catch? How big were they?’” Stuckey recalled the former president asking her one day as she bounced between the two on the edges of their pond in Plains. “I’d go back to Rosalynn, and she’d say, ‘What’d he say? How many does he have?’”

For the former first lady, it was all part of any healthy marriage.

“Jimmy and I are always looking for things to do together,” she told AP at age 93, but “each (person) should have some space. That’s really important.”

‘Finish each other’s sentences’

As their global footprint narrowed first to the U.S., then to The Carter Center campus in Atlanta, and finally to their home and surrounding town, even that friendly competition gave way to two nonagenarians trying to take care of each other.

“They could finish each other’s sentences,” Stuckey said of her many Saturday night meals at the Carters’ table or with them at hers.

Chip Carter, the couple’s son who spent much of the recent months with his parents, told The Washington Post after his mother’s death that as she declined rapidly in her final days, his father asked to be alone with his partner of nearly eight decades. First, Jimmy Carter sat at her bedside in his wheelchair. Later, hospice aides moved his bed to the foot of hers.

He remained there until she was gone, then asked to be with his once-shy bride one more time, just Jimmy and Rosalynn.

“They were never alone, really, during their time on this earth,” Jason Carter said. “They always had each other.”


Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

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