Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter’s marriage: 75 years of love and equality

PLAINS, Ga. — When they arrived, they strolled hand-in-hand toward their pond with a graceful willow at its edge.

“We’re going to be buried right there, on that little hill,” Jimmy Carter said, motioning toward the lawn sloping up from the pond.

“There are little white azaleas all the way around the back of it,” Rosalynn Carter said, pointing and remembering the recent day when a beautiful bluebird landed on her future gravesite. “It sat there all the time I was talking to the man who was actually digging the holes to put the vaults in.”

“I’m pulling you along now,” Jimmy said, laughing and tugging gently on his wife’s thin hand.

“I know, I know,” she said, smiling at him and locking her pinkie around his.

On Wednesday, the Carters will be married 75 years, the longest in presidential history. Jimmy, 96, and Rosalynn, 93, will mark the occasion in the town where they met nearly a century ago. “They will probably just sit and hold hands,” said a friend and neighbor, Jill Stuckey.

Three days later, family, friends and Carter administration officials will travel to Plains for an anniversary party in the local high school auditorium.

On the summer evening three years ago when we met with them, they chatted happily about what they looked forward to most: gathering with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, working at the Carter Center in Atlanta, teaching Sunday school, greeting political leaders who come to Plains to talk to the 39th president. (In April, President Biden and first lady Jill Biden visited.)

But their health was failing, and no one was denying the obvious. Jimmy had been treated for a series of health problems, including melanoma that had spread to his brain and liver. Rosalynn had osteoporosis and had recently undergone surgery for painful intestinal problems.

They had made their peace with the inevitable, but they said the hardest part was knowing that one would leave the other behind.

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith and James Earl Carter Jr. have known each other virtually since birth. Their love story blossomed in World War II and survived the searing scrutiny of political life. Two years ago, the length of their marriage surpassed that of George H.W. and Barbara Bush. Jimmy is also the longest-living president in history.

The Carters’ union has evolved with the times, starting as a traditional “father-knows-best” marriage in the 1940s and ’50s and eventually becoming a full partnership.

Born in the Deep South in 1924, Jimmy became a champion of gender equality. He appointed record numbers of women to the federal bench, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who went on to serve on the Supreme Court.

Rosalynn, born in 1927, was at first a stay-at-home mom, but she gradually took a leading role in the family business and politics. By the 1960s and ’70s, when many women were demanding equality, she had become a pioneering voice in the State Capitol and the White House.

“Over the years, we became not only friends and lovers, but partners,” Rosalynn said at Jimmy’s 90th birthday celebration. “He has always thought I could do anything, and because of that, I/we have had some wonderful adventures and challenges.”

With her husband’s support and over the objections of others, Rosalynn Carter expanded the role of the first lady. She attended Cabinet meetings, worked on mental health and other policy priorities and formally created the Office of the First Lady, in the East Wing with its own chief of staff.

“She was representing what was happening in the women’s movement at the time,” said Anita McBride, who served as Laura Bush’s chief of staff in the White House. “She had the support and respect of the president. He saw her as an equal.”

The couple, whose journey together took them from a peanut warehouse in Georgia to the historic peace accord between Egypt and Israel at Camp David, has been inseparable since leaving the White House.

“It’s uncomfortable when we are not together,” the former president told us.

The Carters like telling the story of how they fell in love, and they shared it with us over dinner in 2018.

In the summer of 1945, he was home in Plains, their tiny hometown in south Georgia, on vacation before his final year at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

One July evening, Jimmy joined his younger sister, Ruth, and her boyfriend on a drive through town. The couple was up front in a Ford convertible, and Jimmy was in the rumble seat. He was dating a beauty queen from a nearby town, but she was at a family reunion, so he was solo.

“We were cruising around town, looking for something to do, trying to pick up a date,” Jimmy recalled as he walked home after our dinner, holding hands with “Rosie.”

They stopped, and he pointed out the United Methodist Church across the street.

“Rosie was in front of the church, right there, and I asked her for a date,” he said.

“I had come to a youth meeting, and I was standing outside,” Rosalynn said, finishing his story as she often does.

“She always thought I was cute,” he said with his famous toothy grin.

Jimmy had first laid eyes on Rosalynn when he was 3 and she was a day old. Her family lived next door, and Jimmy’s mother, Lillian, was a nurse who helped take care of the newborn.

“He looked through the cradle bars and saw me,” she said.

When they were teenagers, Rosalynn said, she had a crush on the “worldly” Naval Academy midshipman, and “Ruth and I had been trying to get me together with him.”

So that evening, when she was 17, she eagerly hopped into the car with him. They went to a movie — though neither of them now can remember which one.

“The moon was full in the sky, conversation came easy, and I was in love … and on the way home, he kissed me!” Rosalynn wrote in her memoir, “First Lady from Plains.”

As we walked down the street in Plains, Jimmy Carter said he remembered being walloped by a sudden clarity that night in 1945.

The next morning his mother asked him how the evening was.

“I went to a movie,” he said.

“What did you think of her?”

“She’s the one I’m going to marry.”

Rosalynn listened to her husband tell that story, smiling, tightening her grip on his hand.

“I didn’t know that for years,” she said.

The former president was asked if he thought their marriage was always meant to be.

“I do, yeah,” he said. “I’ve always thought that.”

Yet Rosalynn was reluctant at first. She went to the train station the day after their date to see him off on his trip back to the Naval Academy. They began writing letters to each other. A few weeks later, in August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Rosalynn said prayers of thanksgiving that her new beau wouldn’t have to go to war.

When he returned for Christmas, he asked her to marry him. She said no.

“It was all too quick,” she wrote in her memoir.

Rosalynn described herself as too “young and naive” to marry. But just a few weeks later, she had a change of heart. His parents brought her to Annapolis for a visit, and he proposed again. This time she said yes.

“As soon as I got home, he sent me a copy of ‘The Navy Wife,’ a guidebook, which I studied to the last detail,” she wrote.

In July 1946, a month after his graduation from the Naval Academy, they were married in the Methodist church where he first asked her out. She was 18. He was 21.

When he was ‘the boss’

The Carters started a life together on the Navy base in Norfolk, followed by stints in Honolulu and San Diego. Rosalynn was often alone raising babies as her husband worked on a battleship and then submarines.

It was a typical marriage of the times, he told us: “I was the boss.”

“The first part of our life, I dominated everything, except the household, which Rosalynn ran,” he said.

He said it shocks him now that he didn’t consult her about his early job moves.

“I know better now!” he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he looked over at his wife.

Their three sons — Jack, James III (Chip) and Donnel (Jeff) — were born during the Carters’ Navy years; daughter Amy was born 15 years later.

Jimmy Carter wrote in his book, “Sharing Good Times,” that in those early years, he “never considered it necessary to seek her advice or approval.”

In 1953, he returned to Plains to be with his dying father. The trip reminded him how much he enjoyed life in his hometown. He decided to leave the Navy and move his family home — without consulting Rosalynn.

In Plains, they moved into publicly subsidized housing, which was all they could afford. He was running his father’s peanut warehouse and found that he couldn’t do all the work himself, from the office ledgers to the visits to farmers.

“So Rosalynn started running the office for me. She took a correspondence course in accounting,” he told us.

“I knew more about the business than he did,” she said, with a knowing look.

Still, it was a slow transition and not always smooth.

When he decided to run for state Senate in 1962, on his 38th birthday, he neglected to tell his wife.

“I just came in one morning and started changing my clothes, from blue jeans to a suit,” he recalled. “Rosie came into the bedroom and said, ‘Jimmy, who died? Are you going to a funeral?’ ”

Four years later, during his first bid for Georgia governor, things came full circle. He was on the phone at home when Rosalynn walked by, and he called out and told her to pack his suitcase for the coming week of campaigning.

“Do it yourself,” she snapped.

The shock of it angered and confused him, but it jolted him into rethinking his attitude. And after that, he told us, there was no part of “our business, personal or political lives that we haven’t shared on a relatively equal basis.”

Starting with Jimmy’s 1970 election as governor, Rosalynn was a key adviser on politics and policy.

“Dad started to change when he ran for governor, because Mom was a much better politician than he was,” said Chip Carter. “She cared about him getting elected and reelected, and he cared about the Panama Canal.”

President Carter’s first executive order created a presidential commission on mental health. He tried to install Rosalynn as its head, a role she had played as first lady of Georgia. But McBride said the Carters ran into a “buzz saw” from advisers who questioned the legality and politics of installing a family member in that role. As a compromise, Rosalynn ran the initiative as “honorary chair.”

She became the second first lady to testify in Congress. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first.

“She helped put real substance into the Office of the First Lady,” McBride said.

During our conversation that summer night three years ago, the Carters told us they frequently disagreed while he was president but always kept it private. She insisted on a one-on-one lunch with him every Thursday in the Oval Office.

“She opposed my policies a lot when I was in the White House, but never publicly,” he said.

“We would sit on the Truman Balcony in the afternoon and talk about what we did,” she said. “I told him what I thought.”

He began calling her his most trusted adviser, and he invited her to attend Cabinet meetings.

“People underestimated her,” said Gerald Rafshoon, communications director in the Carter White House. “She was really the eyes and the ears for Jimmy Carter. And she was the person we’d go to if we needed to turn Jimmy around on something.”

Rosalynn was more upset than Jimmy when Ronald Reagan defeated him in 1980. “I hate to lose,” she said.

After one term in the White House, the Carters returned to Plains and the house they had built in 1961. They were still in their mid-50s, and they decided that they still had much to do. They subsequently raised millions of dollars and traveled the world for the Carter Center, which promotes free, democratic elections, health initiatives for the poor and equality for women.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his many years of work on peace and human rights.

The Carters also helped Habitat for Humanity build houses around the world — often banging hammers side by side.

In March 2019, we went to see the Carters again in Plains.

But hours before we were to meet, Rosalynn, then 91, went to the hospital. She woke that day with severe hip pain and couldn’t put any weight on her leg.

When Jimmy joined us for dinner, he had just left her in the hospital, and he clearly wanted to talk about his wife. He remarked on how easy it was to be with her and “her gentleness when we have an argument.” Their disagreements were mainly trivial, such as what to watch on TV, he said. “But we never go to sleep angry.”

He pushed his chicken around the plate, not eating much.

“We found out a long time ago that we needed to share everything. I gave her plenty of space. She does what she wants to, and I do what I want to. But then we searched for things that we could together.”

He played tennis, so she took lessons. When she was 59 and he was 62, they tried downhill skiing. They went fly-fishing together from Montana to Mongolia. They spotted 1,300 types of birds on their many birdwatching trips.

Later in life, he said, he would occasionally spend a few days overseas without her for the Carter Center. But they didn’t let that get in the way of their nightly routine of reading the Bible together before bed — often in Spanish.

They would read to each other on the phone. Or, if the time difference made it too difficult, they would read alone, each knowing that the other was reading exactly the same verse.

Jimmy said that was comforting, especially on a night when Rosalynn was in the hospital 10 miles away in Americus. When he got home, he told us, he would read at his bedside while she read the same words just down the road.

The Carters frequently visit with Jill Stuckey, who installed a handicapped-accessible ramp to her back door because steps were getting harder for Rosalynn. At first, the former president insisted that he would still use the steps. But as Rosalynn grew more unsteady, he took her hand and walked down the ramp.

A couple of months later, Jimmy fell and broke his hip at home as he was heading out for a turkey hunt. On the day of his discharge after surgery, Rosalynn suddenly started slurring her words.

She was rushed to the hospital, and doctors told her that she had suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA), a temporary blockage of blood to the brain often called a mini-stroke. Doctors said she should remain overnight, so he extended his stay, and they were placed in the same room.

“It was kind of cool to see the two of them lying there together watching the news,” Chip Carter said. “The hospital prepared a salmon meal that looked like one you could buy in a real expensive restaurant. They had a good time, I think.”

His father started every day by bringing Rosalynn coffee and orange juice in bed, then rubbing her feet before she got up. “It’s kind of this lovey-dovey thing that’s been going on forever,” Chip said of his parents. “They’ve evolved, and still are evolving, into an equality that I don’t think many people ever get.”

Jimmy has since weathered surgery for a brain bleed after another fall, and Rosalynn’s health remains frail. But they both keep up with the news.

Last New Year’s Eve, they went to celebrate at Stuckey’s house. Around 9 p.m., they were ready for the Secret Service to drive them the few blocks home. In the back seat, Jimmy leaned over to Rosalynn to give her a kiss. She smiled and slipped down her blue covid-19 mask.

Then they drove past the church where they had been married nearly 75 years earlier, starting yet another year together.

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