Editor’s Note: Several years ago, Michele Willens wrote a piece about Jimmy Carter, his impact on women like herself, and how his wife Rosalynn influenced him. As the 99-year-old former president approaches death, we remember him here.
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. Jimmy 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.
Carter’s Record with Women
What’s particularly interesting is the role women have played in 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 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.”