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Rosalynn Carter Made a Difference
The stands she took in four years as First Lady, and four decades since then, brightened and blessed countless lives.
Election night, November 2, 1976: Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter had been married for 30 years when he won the presidency. This past summer, they celebrated their 77th anniversary. Rosalynn Carter died on November 19, at age 96. (Getty Images.)
My wife, Deb, and I join people around the world in extending sympathies to former President Jimmy Carter and his family, on the death of his wife of 77 years, the love of his life, Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter.
I write now to express condolence, and to note quickly two aspects of her achievement that I think deserve special recognition. One is the profound trust and respect that bound the two Carters together, and that kept raising them to the best versions of themselves. The other is the personal and political bravery she displayed in her pioneering efforts to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
Trust and respect.
Through his post-presidential years, Jimmy Carter has become well known for saying that his relationship with Rosalynn was “the most important thing in my life.” Since most people are aware of Jimmy Carter only as a kindly former president—he left office before most of today’s Americans were born1—this may come across as a golden-years bromide.
But when Jimmy Carter was rising to power, and wielding it, the unshakeable bond between the two of them was an important element of political reality. Anyone in the Carter realm in those days knew that the judgment the President would take special care to hear was that of the First Lady. And she would take care to be sure he heard it!
I do not mean that she overstepped—though that appearance is of course the occupational hazard of political spouses (mainly wives) who dare express policy views. Rather I mean that a president whose long days were filled, like every president’s, with impossible decisions and incessant demands, felt there was one person he could fully trust.
Trust to tell him the truth even when that truth was inconvenient. Trust to deflate or kid him when he got too puffed-up. Trust always, always to have his best interests in mind. Both Carters took flak in the press because Jimmy Carter invited Rosalynn to sit in on Cabinet meetings. He didn’t care; he wanted her there, because he so respected, valued, and needed her judgment.
In an interview with People magazine two years ago, when he and Rosalynn celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary, Jimmy Carter was talking about life after politics but sounded these same themes of trust and respect. “It’s hard to live until you’re 95 years old,” he said. “I think the best explanation for that is to marry the best spouse: someone who will take care of you and engage and do things to challenge you and keep you alive and interested in life.”
Nine months ago, when the Carter Center announced that Jimmy Carter was entering hospice care and it appeared that he did not have much time left, I wrote an appreciation that stressed the value of his example. An example of sticking to principle, an example of patient peacemaking, an example of the constructive role of a former president.
Together Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter set an example of trust and respect between two people, and of course love.
Personal and political bravery.
It doesn’t seem like a big thing now to say that mental diseases are diseases, and that people suffering them should be treated rather than blamed, ridiculed, stigmatized, hidden away. But it was not that way even in the Boomer-era America I grew up in, let alone a generation earlier in the Carters’ time. And credit for the change is due in no small part to Rosalynn Carter.
Back in 2010, Rosalynn Carter offered a wonderfully moving and enlightening discussion on this theme, in an interview at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. I had not known of the event at the time (we were living outside the country) and had not seen the transcript until just now. It’s long—you can read it here—but once I started I found it engrossing, especially in light of today’s news. Update: You can watch a video of the event here.
At this event Rosalynn Carter answered questions from the well-known psychotherapist and writer Peter Kramer.2 Her answers amount to a moral and intellectual autobiography of her passion for de-stigmatizing mental illness.
When she was a child in Depression-era southern Georgia, families wouldn’t talk about the cousins locked away in mental institutions. When she was First Lady of Georgia in the early 1970s, she was shocked by what she saw in state mental hospitals. She met families who were overcome by shame, and desperate to cover up rather than open up. Anyone who was around in mid-20th century America can tell you that this rings true. Mental illness was one of many secret subjects just not to be discussed.
“I want people to know that mental illnesses can be diagnosed, can be treated,” she told Peter Kramer. “The overwhelming majority of people can live full and productive lives in the community. People don’t know that….I want everybody to know what I know, so we can get over the stigma and go on to do what is good and right for people with mental illnesses.”
Again, this may sound obvious and routine in 2023 America. But it wasn’t in early 1970s Georgia when she made it her priority as the state’s First Lady, nor when she began using her part of the Bully Pulpit in the White House.
I am thinking this evening of two political-world illustrations of what she did and the difference she made.
-The case of Teddy Kennedy. In 1979, Senator Edward Kennedy introduced a bill to support community mental health centers across the country. The Democrats had big majorities in the House and Senate at the time; the bill eventually passed; Jimmy Carter signed it into law.3
But at just that same time, Teddy Kennedy was gearing up for his fateful run against Carter for the 1980 nomination. For many years afterward, Jimmy Carter contended that the bitter struggle with Kennedy, plus the failed hostage-rescue mission in Iran, had cost him re-election. Let’s set aside whether that view is correct. Instead think about the choice Rosalynn Carter made.
A major step forward, in a cause she had advocated for years, was in the hands of her husband’s political rival. But she testified before Kennedy’s Senate committee in support of the bill, and did everything she could to ensure its passage. She stayed with her cause, even though it gave Kennedy a “win.”
-The case of Betty Ford. During her time in the White House, Betty Ford had spoken in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, and had revealed her diagnosis of breast cancer. Then in 1976 Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, and Rosalynn Carter brought her mental-health message to the White House.
A little more than a year later, Betty Ford, as former First Lady, publicly announced that she was under treatment for alcoholism as well as other addictions. She began the addiction-recovery work for which she is most lastingly known.
Pure coincidence of timing? Yes, probably so. But it must have helped speed the shift in public attitudes that two First Ladies, of different backgrounds and different parties, were at the same time talking about mental and behavioral issues not as shameful secrets but as treatable disease. In their different ways—one as an advocate, one as a personal witness—the two of them helped bring about a major change.
Judgment; trust; bravery; love. Through their 77 years of marriage Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter shared all these. Her memory will be a blessing. Her influence on the world will be her monument.
Jimmy Carter left the White House on January 20, 1981. The median age in the United States is now around 38 years, so most of today’s Americans were born in 1985 or later.
As it happens, he is also a longtime friend of mine. I did a podcast-discussion with Peter Kramer earlier this year, about his latest book, Death of the Great Man.
Unfortunately it suffered a fate like that of the solar panels Carter had presciently installed on the White House roof. Once Ronald Reagan had beaten Carter and been sworn in, he undid most of the mental-health plan, much as he had removed the solar panels. The bill was the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. See E. Fuller Torrey’s account of what Reagan did to it.