ATLANTA (AP) — Former first lady Rosalynn Carterthe closest advisor to Jimmy Carter during his single term as president of the United States and his subsequent four decades as global humanitarians, he died at the age of 96.
The Carter Center said he died Sunday after living with dementia and suffering many months of declining health. The statement said she “died peacefully, with her family at her side” at 2:10 pm at her rural home in Plains, Georgia.
“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I accomplished,” the former president said in the statement. “She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, she always knew someone loved me and supported me.”
President Joe Biden called the Carters “an incredible family because they brought so much grace to the office.”
“He had great integrity and still does. And so is she,” Biden told reporters as he boarded Air Force One Sunday night after an event in Norfolk, Virginia. “God bless you.” Biden said she spoke to the family and they told her that Jimmy Carter was surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
The White House later issued a joint statement from the president and first lady Jill Biden saying Carter inspired the nation. “She was an advocate for equal rights and opportunities for women and girls; an advocate for the mental health and well-being of all people; and a supporter of the often invisible and uncompensated caregivers of our children, elderly loved ones, and people with disabilities,” the statement added.
Reaction from world leaders poured throughout the day.
The Carters were married for more than 77 years, forging what they both described as a “full partnership.” Unlike many previous first ladies, Rosalynn participated in cabinet meetings, spoke on controversial issues, and represented her husband on foreign trips. President Carter’s advisors sometimes referred to her (privately) as “co-president.”
AP Washington correspondent Sagar Meghani reports.
“Rosalynn is my best friend… the perfect extension of me, probably the most influential person in my life,” Jimmy Carter told advisers during his years in the White House, which spanned from 1977-1981.
The former president, now 99, remains at the couple’s home in Plains after entering hospice care himself in February.
Fiercely loyal and compassionate, as well as politically astute, Rosalynn Carter prided herself on being an activist first lady, and no one doubted her influence behind the scenes. When her role in a highly publicized cabinet reshuffle became known, she was forced to declare publicly: “I’m not running the government.”
Many presidential advisers insisted that her political instincts were better than her husband’s; They often sought her support for a project before discussing it with the president. Her iron will, in contrast to her seemingly shy demeanor and soft Southern accent, inspired Washington journalists to call her “the Steel Magnolia.”
Both Carters said in their later years that Rosalynn had always been the more political of the two. After Jimmy Carter’s crushing defeat in 1980, it was she, not the former president, who contemplated an unlikely return, and years later confessed to missing her life in Washington.
Jimmy Carter trusted her so much that in 1977, just a few months into his presidency, he sent her on a mission to Latin America to tell dictators that he was serious about denying military aid and other support to violators of the human rights.
He also had strong feelings about the style of the Carter White House. The Carters did not serve hard liquor at public events, although Rosalynn did allow American wine. There were fewer nights of ballroom dancing and more square dancing and picnics.
Throughout her husband’s political career, she chose mental health and older people’s issues as her signature political emphasis. When the media did not cover those efforts as much as she believed was necessary, she criticized journalists for writing only about “sexy topics.”
As honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she once testified before a Senate subcommittee, becoming the first first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt to address a congressional panel. She returned to Washington in 2007 to pressure Congress to improve mental health coverage, saying, “We’ve been working on this for so long that it finally seems to be within our reach.”
She said she developed her interest in mental health during her husband’s campaigns for governor of Georgia.
“I used to come home and say to Jimmy, ‘Why do people tell me their problems?’ And he said, ‘Because you may be the only person they will see who may be close to someone who can help them,’” she explained.
After Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, Rosalynn Carter seemed more visibly devastated than her husband. She initially had little interest in returning to the small town of Plains, where they were both born, married, and spent most of their lives.
“I was indecisive, not at all sure that I could be happy here after the dazzle of the White House and the years of exhilarating political battles,” she wrote in her 1984 autobiography, “First Lady of the Plains.” But “little by little we rediscovered the satisfaction of a life that we had abandoned long before.”
After leaving Washington, Jimmy and Rosalynn co-founded the Carter Center in Atlanta to continue their work. He chaired the center’s annual symposium on mental health issues and raised funds to help the mentally ill and homeless. He also wrote “Helping Yourself Helping Others,” about the challenges of caring for elderly or ill family members, and a sequel, “Helping Someone with a Mental Illness.”
The Carters frequently left home on humanitarian missions, building homes with Habitat for Humanity and promoting public health and democracy throughout the developing world.
“I get tired,” he said of his travels. “But something so wonderful always happens. To go to a town where they have guinea worm and come back a year or two later and there is no guinea worm, I mean people are dancing and singing, it’s wonderful.”
In 2015, Jimmy Carter’s doctors discovered four small tumors in his brain. The Carters feared he had weeks to live. He was treated with a medication to boost his immune system and later announced that doctors found no remaining signs of cancer. But when they first got the news, she said she didn’t know what she was going to do.
“I depend on him when I have questions, when I write speeches, anything, I consult with him,” he said.
He helped Carter recover several years later, when he underwent hip replacement surgery at age 94 and had to learn to walk again. And she was with him earlier this year when she, after a series of hospital stays, decided that she would forego further medical interventions and begin end-of-life care for herself.
Jimmy Carter is the oldest American president. Rosalynn Carter was the second oldest of the country’s first ladies, only surpassed by Bess Truman, who died at age 97.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains on August 18, 1927, the eldest of four children. Her father died when she was young, so she took on much of the responsibility of caring for her siblings when her mother went to work part-time.
She also contributed to the family income by working after school in a beauty salon. “We were very poor and worked hard,” she once said, but she continued her studies and graduated from high school at the top of her class.
She soon fell in love with the brother of one of her best friends. Jimmy and Rosalynn had known each other their entire lives (it was Jimmy’s mother, nurse Lillian Carter, who gave birth to baby Rosalynn), but he left for the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, while she was still in the high school.
After going on a blind date, Jimmy told his mother, “That’s the girl I want to marry.” They married in 1946, shortly after his graduation from Annapolis and Rosalynn’s graduation from Georgia Southwestern College.
Their children were born where Jimmy Carter was stationed: John William (Jack) in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1947; James Earl III (Chip) in Honolulu in 1950; and Donnel Jeffery (Jeff) in New London, Connecticut, in 1952. Amy was born in Plains in 1967. By then, Carter was a state senator.
Life in the navy had given Rosalynn her first chance to see the world. When Carter’s father, James Earl Sr., died in 1953, Jimmy Carter decided, without consulting his wife, to move the family back to Plains, where he took over the family farm. She joined him there in daily operations, keeping the books and weighing the fertilizer trucks.
“We developed a partnership when we were working in the farm supply business,” Rosalynn Carter proudly recalled in a 2021 interview with The Associated Press. “I knew more on paper about the business than he did. “He would take my advice on things.”
At the height of the Carters’ political power, Lillian Carter said of her daughter-in-law: “She can do anything in the world with Jimmy, and she’s the only one. She listens”.
Ceremonies The celebration of Rosalynn Carter’s life will be held after the Thanksgiving holiday in Atlanta and Sumter County, Georgia, the Carter Center announced Sunday evening.
The repose on November 27, at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, is open to the public. A private funeral and burial will be held on Nov. 29, but the services will be broadcast on television and online, the center said.