As they were both aware, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter improved each other.
If she’d married another promising young man from her area of the state, Rosalynn would likely have lived a prosperous and productive life where she was born and raised.
With Jimmy the young Navy officer, she soon got a taste of the wider world of places like Honolulu and Schenectady. With Jimmy the aspiring politician, she began to understand how she could affect the issues she cared about.
With Jimmy the president, she brought a new awareness to the job of First Lady, and with Jimmy the ex-president, she played a crucial role in re-imagining what a post-presidency should be.
It’s only a parlor game to speculate whether Jimmy would have been elected president, or for that matter governor, with someone other than Rosalynn. What can be said with certainty is that he wouldn’t have been the same public figure without her.
“I think she understands the consciousness of the American people and their attitudes perhaps better than do I,” then-President Carter said in a 1978 interview. Maybe that’s why she understood before he did that he was going to lose his bid for re-election in 1980.
That defeat, which she took harder than he did, became the springboard for the remarkable period in which she emerged as not only an equal but a fully recognized partner in the creation of the Carter Center and so many of the projects in which they stood shoulder to shoulder. The most successful ex-president drew much of his inspiration from the most resourceful ex-First Lady. He has been very open in acknowledging her as “an equal partner in everything I ever accomplished.”
There have been other presidential partners, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, and among those who have competed for the office, John and Cindy McCain. The Carters owe the distinction of having the longest presidential marriage to their longevity, of course, but also to an empathy that is very rare in any couple.
She championed a host of causes, but she moved into the Georgia governor’s mansion in 1971 with the firm intention of doing something for the mentally ill and those who care for them. That was a commitment she met for the rest of her public life.
It’s hard to think offhand of another marriage that lasted longer than I’ve been alive.
When Jimmy said in a 1976 Playboy interview that he’d lusted in his heart after other women, they’d already been married 30 years. Rosalynn had a firm grip on what was real and what was the funhouse mirror of celebrity, which served her well during her years in the White House.
Historically speaking, she occupies a space between the period when first ladies were dutiful or, at their most controversial, glamorous and the era of the political power couples. She bridged those periods but, in many ways, shaped a unique legacy.
It has been reported that she will be buried at Carter’s residence in Plains, which is both a sign of independence — you don’t often hear of that practice in little Southern towns, at least the ones I know — and a token of how deeply rooted she was in the town where she was born and the home she and her husband built many years ago. May she rest in peace.