Rosalynn's Next Leap


Finally, gratefully, after nearly two years of relentless campaigning, Rosalynn Smith Carter has returned to Plains, the little south Georgia crossroads town where she was born 49 years ago. But once again she has not come home to stay. Next Jan. 20, Rosalynn will stand beside her husband as he takes the oath of office as 39th President of the United States.

Unlike many First Ladies, who have come to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue reluctantly, as prisoners of their husbands’ careers, Rosalynn Carter will bring to the White House her own full measure of resolve and ambition. “I should be more apprehensive about moving into the White House,” she says, cheerfully. “But I’m not, probably because I don’t know what it’s like.”

An equal partner in the Carter political combine, she is keenly aware of a First Lady’s potential for leadership. While Rosalynn’s public concerns—care for the mentally ill, problems of the aged—are well-known, her behind-the-scenes impact may be far more wide-ranging (“If I have to, I’ll push him on women’s rights,” she vows). The President-elect frequently uses her as a sounding board on matters of policy, and values especially her judgments of people. Pillow talk in the next administration—the Carters, like the Fords, share the same bed—is expected to have repercussions beyond the walls of the White House. “I ask any questions which come to my mind,” she once explained. “Jimmy needs to know what people who are not as smart as he is think about things.”

Mary King, head of the Carter women’s committee, believes Rosalynn’s confidence has grown immeasurably since she began campaigning for her husband in early 1975. She expects Carter to treat his wife as “an adviser, a strategist fully involved in everything in the White House,” and to consult her on Cabinet appointments. “If Rosalynn okays you, you’re in,” says another Carter-watcher. “If she doesn’t, you’re dead.”

Few political couples, in fact, seem as fiercely committed to each other as Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Their relationship traces back to childhood. Jimmy’s sister Ruth was Rosalynn’s best friend. His mother, Lillian, a nurse, took care of Rosalynn’s father—a garage mechanic who drove the Plains school bus—during the summer of 1940 when he died of leukemia. Romantically, Jimmy and Rosalynn were worlds apart then—he was a high school senior; she was 13—but some five years later their perspectives had changed. By that time Jimmy was a dashing midshipman home on leave from Annapolis, while Rosalynn was attending nearby Georgia Southwestern College and helping her widowed mother raise three younger children. “I really fell all over myself just to get Jimmy to notice me,” Rosalynn later confessed. “I’d dress up and go over to the Carters’ to see Ruth, and act as adult as I could, but Jimmy wouldn’t pay any attention.”

Then, two nights before returning to the Naval Academy, Jimmy asked Rosalynn to the movies on a double date with Ruth and her boyfriend. Afterward Jimmy told his mother, “She’s the girl I want to marry.” He proposed over Christmas vacation and Rosalynn turned him down. She relented by Washington’s Birthday and they were married July 7, 1946 in Plains.

For Rosalynn, life as a Navy wife brought a taste of freedom. Moving from base to base—Norfolk, San Diego, Oahu—she escaped from the circumscribed world of her childhood. Son Jack was born in Portsmouth, Va., in 1947; Chip three years later in Hawaii, and Jeff in New London, Conn., in 1952. Then, in 1953, Jimmy’s father died of cancer in Plains, and Carter decided he had to resign from the Navy and return to the peanut farm. “I hated the idea,” Rosalynn later confided. “I didn’t want to go back where I thought my mother and his mother would interfere with our lives.” She and Jimmy argued bitterly, but in the end she yielded.

The first years back in Georgia were trying ones. There was a crop failure in 1954, and Carter’s profit for the year was $187. Rosalynn handled the bookkeeping and the office work, while the family squeezed into a $21-a-month housing project apartment. The Carters survived the hardship, but Rosalynn was put to the test once again when Jimmy went into politics. Not until the 1966 gubernatorial race, which Carter lost, did she feel sure enough of herself to campaign alone: “We had a long talk, and Jimmy convinced me that he knew I could do it.” She stumped up and down the state in 1970, and her husband was elected Georgia’s governor.

Though friends say Rosalynn draws on Jimmy for intellectual sustenance—”It’s like a process of osmosis,” says one—her drive and discipline are part of her own character. “She has no time for comedy,” an acquaintance once observed. “She rarely wants to talk about books, movies or sports. The only subject that animates her is Jimmy.” Political writers have dubbed her the Steel Magnolia. Rosalynn accepts the name with a shrug. “I don’t mind being called tough,” she says. “I am strong, and I do have definite ideas and opinions. In the sense that ‘tough’ means I can take a lot, stand up to a lot, it’s a fair description.”

While success has been the ruin of many political marriages, the Carters’ has grown steadily stronger. (A friend in Plains admits candidly, “In our group, married couples sometimes pair off and have flings, but Jimmy and Rosalynn have a love and devotion that is rare.”) Perhaps the only strain in their marriage came from a different quarter. Jimmy’s election as governor reportedly led to a brief but decisive showdown between Rosalynn and Miss Lillian over who would assume the role of first lady. Gently but firmly, intimates say, Rosalynn made clear that she would—and did. Although there is still a detectable coolness between the two women (“No mother ever thinks anyone is good enough for her son,” says one Carter friend), Miss Lillian took care of granddaughter Amy during much of the recent campaign. Amy was born in 1967; having a fourth child was possible only after Rosalynn was operated on for removal of an ovarian cyst.

Although Rosalynn will be the youngest U.S. First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy (who was 31), she will hardly be her equal in matters of style. Rosalynn is a casual dresser who made many of her own clothes before the campaign, and who now buys outfits off the rack in Americus, Ga. For the inaugural ball she is expected to wear the same blue satin gown with chiffon coat that she wore when Jimmy was sworn in as governor of Georgia. Says one local shopkeeper: “Rosalynn likes long sleeves, plain clothes with high necks.” She rarely wears personal jewelry, and keeps her fingernails neat but unpolished. For the next two months Rosalynn says she looks forward to relaxing in dungarees (without TV makeup), spending time with Amy and packing things into the attic that aren’t going to Washington.

Rosalynn favors basic American cuisine—steak, pork chops, roast beef—and is considering serving only wine in the White House, no hard liquor (which was the practice before the Kennedys). She has little interest in social extravagance. “The Carters will not want a White House in which poor or middle-income people will feel uncomfortable,” says adviser Mary King. “There will be little white tie, if any, and lots of street clothes. And there will be square dances, though they won’t replace state dinners.” Above all, say those who know her, Rosalynn will be a power in the White House—not merely an ornament. “She has a fine mind and lots of energy and drive,” says campaign biographer Kandy Stroud. “She will be an absolutely dynamite First Lady.”

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