Steven Roberts: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: A partnership of equals

Steven Roberts

I’ve taught several thousand students during 33 years at George Washington University, and when we get together, many of them mention my favorite piece of advice: Who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. Nothing else is even close.

I recalled those conversations as I read the obituaries of Rosalynn Carter, who died on Nov. 19 at age 96. Rosalynn was the wife of former President Jimmy Carter for 77 years — the longest presidential marriage in our nation’s history. I was married to my wife, Cokie, for only 53 years before she died in 2019, but the former president and I had come to the same conclusion: “My biggest secret is to marry the right person,” Carter told the Associated Press in 2021.

The Carters lived a great love story, but they represented far more than that. Their marriage reflected and embodied the feminist revolution that profoundly changed the role of women during the latter part of the last century.

“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.”

It didn’t start out that way. They were married in 1946 — he was a 21-year-old naval officer; she was only 18 — and as he told the Washington Post, it was a typical marriage of the times: “I was the boss. … The first part of our life, I dominated everything.”

That traditional imbalance continued for seven years, and when Jimmy’s father got sick, “the boss” decided they should leave the service, move back to their hometown of Plains, Georgia, and take over his family’s troubled peanut warehouse.

Rosalynn was devastated, as she wrote in her memoir: “I argued, I cried. I even screamed at him.” But life can take funny turns. For the first time, Jimmy needed her help. When she learned accounting and started keeping their books, their whole relationship shifted.

“We developed a partnership when we were working in the farm supply business,” Rosalynn said to the Associated Press. “I knew more on paper about the business than he did. He would take my advice about things.”

That new partnership continued to evolve as Jimmy entered politics — first in the state legislature, then as governor — but it really blossomed during his 1976 run for the presidency. Rosalynn campaigned for 18 months in a total of 42 states, and as their son Chip noted, “Mom was a much better politician than he was.”

When they came to Washington, Rosalynn refined — or redefined — the role of first lady. On inauguration day, the Carters walked hand in hand from the Capitol to the White House. She attended cabinet meetings; traveled to Latin America on a fact-finding tour; testified before Congress on her primary issue, treating and destigmatizing mental illness; and became the first presidential wife to have a formal, fully staffed office in the White House.

Then in 1980, Carter lost his bid for reelection. He was 56, she was 53, and they had to decide on their next act. Instead of staying in Washington and trading on their celebrity, they returned to Plains, and their partnership continued — starting the Carter Center in Atlanta, devoted to peace building and disease prevention; working with Habitat for Humanity; writing books; making speeches and promoting the issues they had always cared about.

In 1999, Bill Clinton awarded them both the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for their post-White House life. The Carters, he said, had “done more good things for more people in more places than any other couple on Earth.” And they had done them together.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].