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Rosalynn Carter: The Most Powerful First Lady in History?

"Steel Magnolia" Rosalynn Carter revolutionized the office of First Lady and served as her husband's closest advisor. May she rest in peace.

Editor’s Note: Michele Willens wrote this wonderful tribute to Rosalynn Carter when a new book was published about her husband. It still holds today when we mourn her loss. 


When I was a young writer for CBS News, a friend—the daughter of a Democratic fundraiser—invited me to her house because “that peanut farmer governor who might run for president” was coming to dinner. There were about 12 of us at the table, and after each course they would move the men over two seats. Carter and I were far apart, and even by the final move, we couldn’t quite look across at each other. But he went out of his way to include me in conversation. The night ended, and when he approached me to say goodnight, he said, “I kept hoping they’d move us one more time.”

I walked into my office the following day and said, “Okay, last night I met the next President of the United States.” Suffice to say, I was laughed out of the newsroom. But it hardly mattered, because I soon after became Carter’s California press secretary for his 1976 campaign.

So it’s no surprise that I was interested in reading Jonathan Alter’s just-published book on Carter, His Very Best. It is the first major biography written about the 95-year-old former president, and it is filled with forgotten facts, including Joe Biden being the first U.S. Senator to endorse his candidacy, and reminders, such as the Southerner’s determination to end segregation.

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Carter’s Record With Women

rosalynn carter

Rosalynn and Jimmy working at Habitat for Humanity.

What’s particularly interesting is the role women have played in Jimmy Carter’s story and life. Yes, this from a man who got into unnecessary trouble for saying “lust in my heart” during a Playboy interview. His colorful mother, Miss Lillian, earned the country’s admiration. Miss Julia Coleman was the first teacher ever mentioned in an inaugural address. (“The most resonating lessons in my whole existence.”) And most importantly there was his wife, Rosalynn, who played a much larger role than many may have realized.

 “Rosalynn was proving to be Jimmy’s secret weapon,” writes Alter, “well informed, tireless and shrewd.” There are many examples in the book, including when George McGovern was forced to drop his running mate in 1972. Rosalynn “quietly called around, trying to get Jimmy named as the replacement.” For good reason, Alter has devoted several chapters to her in the book.

Furthermore, one learns about the record-smashing number of women President Carter placed in his administration, and on benches, starting with one named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I spoke with Alter about the book and Rosalynn, who Carter saw as his ‘antenna,’ his ‘lightning rod.’

“By Jimmy’s own admission,” he says, “her formidable political instincts were superior to his own.”

Rosalynn’s Role

The following is part of our discussion.

Q: Would you say Rosalynn was our most feminist First Lady?

A: “The Steel Magnolia,” as she was called, was arguably the most powerful First Lady in American history. Jimmy sent her on major diplomatic missions and had her sit in on cabinet meetings. When a Carter aide, listing the President’s top advisers, put her above Secretary of State, National Security Adviser and White House Chief of Staff, a Time columnist wrote, “Note the order.”

The Carters essentially revolutionized the office of First Lady. She was the first with an office and issues staff, drove policy on many issues, including raising the retirement age and inoculating children when they enter kindergarten.

Q: You have a great story in the book about the Carters arguing while trying to write a book together. It seemed serious. Do you think they really could have separated?

A: No, they are too closely connected and don’t really believe in divorce. It pained them that three of their children went through divorce. But they had rough patches, which I chronicle. I also include Jimmy’s never before published love letters from the Navy, which are surprisingly explicit. “When I first leave you, I miss more than anything your mouth and breasts and body and the way you feel and smell when we’re making love.”

Read More: Ruth Bader Ginsburg On What She Belives is the Biggest Threat to Democracy

Q: What issues do you think Rosalynn most impacted?

A: Her landmark 1980 bill on mental illness was gutted under President Reagan. Thirty years later, much of it was resurrected by President Obama. She has done as much as anyone to put that issue on the agenda. Similarly, The Rosalynn Carter Center For Care-Giving has helped put that challenge on the map.

Q: In this year, you and your daughter have published books on politics. She’s writing about the new generation of politicians. Do you think those younger folks care about people like Jimmy Carter?

A: Young people need role models. It’s no coincidence that Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Pete Buttigieg all made pilgrimages to Plains, Georgia, this year to meet Jimmy and Rosalynn.

Q: How much time did you spend with Rosalynn?

A: I interviewed her alone three times and with Jimmy a few others. I shared meals with them and worked with them building a house for Habitat for Humanity in Memphis. Besides Jimmy’s love letters, she shared her unpublished journal entries from critical moments of the Carter presidency, including the Camp David Accords and the Iran hostage crisis.

Q: In your talks with Rosalynn, what surprised you most?

A: The love letters she shared with me. First, that she trusted me enough to do that, given that no one outside her family had ever read them. And one of my favorite memories was when I asked if Jimmy was stubborn and she laughed uproariously. That was my answer.

Q: What is her health like, and can you imagine either of them living alone, having been married forever?

A:  Rosalynn is also very old and frail so it would be folly to predict who will go first.

One finishes this biography with deep admiration for Rosalynn Carter, a magnolia who was steelier, and more important, than we expected. And for a man who realized the importance of the female voice. Personally, I recall when he ‘seduced’ me across a dining table all those years ago; not with flirtation, but with curiosity and respect. And soon after, by handing a very young woman a rather important position.

By Michele Willens


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