To show how resolute she can be, Rosalynn Carter tells a story about a day in the early 1970s when her husband, Jimmy, was governor of Georgia and she was asked to talk at a local high school. Minutes before her speech, she found herself locked in a ladies' room stall. "I called and called," says Rosalynn, now 72, "and nobody heard me. So I stepped on the John and climbed over the top. I had on my good suit and high heels. I was afraid someone would come in and see the governor's wife hoisting herself over a bathroom stall. But as I say, you do what you have to do."
That might well serve as her mantra. Over the years the wife of the 39th President has certainly had occasion to repeat it, from her trying teenage years in Plains, Ga., when her father died and left her to help raise three younger siblings, to her difficult first months in the White House, when many in the Washington press corps characterized the Carters as naive bumpkins. But for the woman who would become known as the Steel Magnolia, such setbacks were only temporary. As a youth she helped pull her troubled family together, and later she would vigorously defend her husband even while trying to forge a legacy of her own.
In fact, much to some cabinet members' muted displeasure, she sat in on their meetings with the President, and unlike even such formidable First Ladies as Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter actually succeeded in changing policy. As honorary chairman of the President's Commission on Mental Health, she toured the country to interview thousands of citizens and medical professionals. Her labors resulted in the 1980 Mental Health Systems Act, an ambitious plan that would have yielded increased benefits for adolescents, the elderly and chronically ill, but which was later scuttled by the Reagan Administration.
Mental health was Rosalynn's signature issue. She was a pioneer in de-stigmatizing mental illness, says Douglas Brinkley, author of The Unfinished Presidency: "By speaking so openly, she helped millions cope with their depression and anxiety." Rosalynn not only spoke, she acted. In the late '70s she went into squalid Cambodian refugee camps to dramatize the need for international relief. It was, says First Lady historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a "horrific experience. There was tent after tent filled with sick and dying refugees." Like many of her gestures, the visit "wasn't sexy," he adds. "It was the old-fashioned idea of touching people one by one."
In fact, not much of what Rosalynn Carter did ever made the evening news, perhaps because she lacked the star power of Jackie Kennedy or the driving ambition of Hillary Clinton. It may also be because her identity meshed so neatly with that of her husband's. More than any other First Couple, the Carters worked as a team. "I can't tell you how important she was," says former Carter Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan. "People who really know the Carters say you never knew quite where Rosalynn stopped and Jimmy began."
That symbiosis proved particularly invaluable at the end of her husband's term. The humiliating 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan would seem to have been challenge enough for the Carters. But when they returned to Plains, they found their peanut business, which had been in a blind trust, ravaged by drought. They were $1 million in debt. Typically,-they didn't despair but did what was necessary. First they sold the business, then they sat down at their word processors to tap out bestsellers: Jimmy's Keeping Faith and Rosalynn's First Lady from Plains.
These days the Carters earn their living largely by writing books (Jimmy has published 14; Rosalynn's third, Helping Someone with Mental Illness, was published in 1998). They live frugally in an airy, tree-shaded one-story house on the west side of Plains. And having quickly gotten back on their feet financially, they returned to what they always believed was their strongest suit: helping others. "They are professed Christians," says Betty Bumpers, wife of former Sen. Dale Bumpers, "and they live that role as closely as anybody I know." Founding the Carter Center in Atlanta in 1982, the couple reinvented themselves as ambassadors without portfolios, building houses for the poor through Habitat for Humanity, working to eradicate diseases, monitoring elections for fairness in such far-off nations as Mozambique and China and organizing the annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health. "We seem to have an awful lot of things going," Carter says modestly. "But basically we work for peace and health." With Habitat, that work is often hands-on. "Mrs. Carter was out there sawing, hammering, measuring," says Elsie Jones, whose Washington, D.C., home Habitat built in '92. "And, oh, was it hot!"
Though both grew up in Plains, Eleanor Rosalynn Smith and Jimmy Carter were not childhood sweethearts. "Jimmy was three years older," says Rosalynn. "So we didn't really know each other." Rosalynn's father, Edgar, ran an auto-repair shop on Main Street. "I grew up in the Depression, when people didn't have anything," says Rosalynn, "but we didn't know it. The school and church were the center of our lives." When Rosalynn was 13, her 44-year-old father died of leukemia. "When I went to bed that night," Rosalynn later wrote, "I never wanted to wake up."
Left with four young children and little money, Rosalynn's mother, Allie, who died in April at 94, took a job at the post office. She relied on Rosalynn, her oldest daughter, to ride herd on the little ones and to help out financially by working at the local beauty parlor. In 1944 the Plains High School valedictorian enrolled in a nearby junior college and fell in love with Jimmy—or, rather, with a photo of him in his Naval Academy uniform that her friend Ruth Carter, Jimmy's younger sister, had on her wall.
One night in the summer of 1945, Jimmy spent the day with Ruth and Rosalynn cleaning the Carters' grounds. That night, Jimmy invited Rosalynn to the movies, and the next morning he told his mother he had just gone out with the girl, he was going to marry. They wed a year later and settled in Norfolk, Va., where Ensign Carter was based. "I was away for the first time and had a baby," says Rosalynn. "Jimmy was gone much of the time, and I had to take care of everything. It was very scary. But it taught me that I could do what I had to do."
At the time, that mainly meant caring for her growing family. The Carters' first child, Jack, now a banker in Bermuda, was born in 1947. Chip, who works for an international exchange program called the Friendship Force, followed in 1950. And Jeff, a computer programmer in Peachtree City, Ga., came along in 1952. Amy, now a homemaker, was born 15 years later.
Working on a nuclear submarine, Jimmy set his sights on becoming an admiral. But in 1953 he went home to help his dying father through his final days. "I had a kind of transformation," Jimmy said recently on CNBC's Hardball. "I saw what my daddy's life was in this little town of Plains, Ga., how much he meant to people." But Rosalynn was distraught when Jimmy quit the Navy to take over the family business. "I didn't want to go back," she says. "I think I pouted for about a year. Plains is a place where everybody knows every single thing about you. I thought I had outgrown it." To make matters worse, the business was teetering, and they had to move into public housing.
In 1954, their first year back, there was a terrible drought. The Carters made less than $200. The next spring the rains came, and peanuts poured into Jimmy's warehouse. Rosalynn began putting in 16-hour days, weighing the peanut shipments and keeping the books. Soon she knew the business as well as Jimmy did.
Meanwhile, Jimmy went into politics, beginning in 1955 with a seat on the county school board. Elected to the Georgia senate in 1962, he served one term as governor in the early '70s before stunning even those closest to him in 1973 by saying he wanted to run for President. "President of what?" his mother, Miss Lillian, asked.
Rosalynn's close friend Edna Langford tells how she and Rosalynn would set out in Rosalynn's Chevy with the mission of explaining who Jimmy was. "We'd head for the local radio or TV station," says Langford. "Rosalynn would introduce herself, saying, 'I'm Mrs. Jimmy Carter, and my husband is running for President of the United States.' They would generally be a little taken aback. But after a few minutes, I'd say, 'Well, would you like to interview Mrs. Carter?' And they'd say yes."
Rosalynn turned out to be a natural campaigner. "Jimmy was never really a I politician," she says. "But I was. My definition of a politician is that you let the people guide you. Jimmy is more of a leader who wants people to follow him." Still, running as a Washington outsider, Carter turned obscurity into a plus in his race against incumbent Gerald Ford. He also promised never to lie to the American public, a vow that had special resonance after Vietnam and Watergate.
Rosalynn, who treasures Jimmy's Inauguration as the greatest day of her life, loved being First Lady. If other families felt confined in the White House—Harry Truman called it the Big White Jail—the Carters quickly made themselves a nest. "Jeff was going to George Washington University, and he and his wife, Annette, came to live with us," says Rosalynn. "Chip was going to work at the Democratic National Committee, and he and his wife, Caron, also moved in." Later, a treehouse was built on the south lawn for Amy. "The wonderful thing about the White House," says Rosalynn, "is we were just normal people there."
Too normal for some. The Carters wanted to depomp the White House and in so doing antagonized Washington's traditionalists. Rosalynn upset the fashion press by attending Inaugural balls in the very dress she had worn six years earlier to Jimmy's gubernatorial ball. And the couple decided not to serve hard liquor at White House events (Rosalynn had learned that $1 million could be saved by sticking to wine and ending festivities before midnight).
Though some in the Washington media ridiculed the Carters, Jimmy's Administration strengthened relations with China, pardoned Vietnam draft evaders and, most notably, brought Egypt and Israel into a peace agreement. Then in 1979, Iranian protesters seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held 52 American hostages there for the remaining 444 days of Carter's term in office. That crisis, plus a disastrously failed rescue attempt and long lines at the gas pump helped usher Jimmy Carter's Presidency into history.
Though the Carters' memories of the White House may be mixed, the couple have flourished since leaving it. Jimmy has been nominated at least seven times for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1999, when Bill Clinton awarded the Carters the Medal of Freedom, he said that they had "done more good things for more people than any other couple on the face of the earth."
Seemingly tireless, the Carters also find time for themselves. When Jimmy was 62 and Rosalynn 59, they learned to ski. Two years later, they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. On any given day they jog together, play tennis together, even fly-fish together. And they cash in frequent-flier miles to take the entire family (including 10 grandchildren) on Christmas trips to such places as Colorado and Belize.
Last fall the Carter clan gathered in Americus, Ga., to celebrate Jimmy's 75th birthday. Beforehand, Jimmy was asked to name the most important thing he had ever done. He answered without hesitation, "Marrying Rosalynn." Later that evening, even as the crowd swarmed around the giant birthday cake, Rosalynn and Jimmy stole away and strolled up the street. Alone finally, they were holding hands.
Gail Cameron Wescott in Plains and Margery Sellinger in Washington, D.C.