Jimmy Carter Already Has a 'Running' Mate—His Tireless Wife, Rosalynn

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which of the Carters—Jimmy or his wife, Rosalynn—is running harder for President. After a late party in New Hampshire recently, she grabbed two hours’ sleep, drove to Boston, flew to Charlotte, N.C. for one press conference, then on to Greenville, S.C. for another and some strenuous handshaking. That was all before noon. “I once visited 23 cities in three and a half days,” she says, “so this is not unusual for me.” She has been going at it with cheerful indefatigability since last April.

Rosalynn campaigns alone rather than tag after her husband “because we can reach twice as many people this way. I’ve made as many as 12 speeches a day in one community. I enjoy it. But sometimes,” she adds wistfully, “I want to stop and wash my hair.” She and Jimmy are amazingly alike—supremely confident, articulate, strong-willed—and her message is a duplicate of his. “We have the best candidate,” she tells audiences. “People are looking for a fresh face.”

The first person plural crops up again and again in Rosalynn’s discourse. “We’ve been campaigning…we can win…our campaign.” Such zeal occasionally rankles, although Rosalynn appears to have few enemies in a profession where wives are fair targets. “She’s one of the strangest and stiffest women I’ve ever known,” says one nonadmirer in Georgia. “It doesn’t come naturally to her to be doing all this. She’s painfully shy, but she has very strong ambition.”

Obviously Rosalynn has given the burdens of First Ladyship some thought. She says she admires Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson, who “helped me with a wildflower program in Georgia.” And she adds, “If I were First Lady, I would work in mental health and I would have Robert Shaw [Atlanta Symphony conductor] play at the White House. I would be busy, always working.”

She is low-key about specific issues, although she does appear to give cautious support to the Equal Rights Amendment. “It means,” she explains, “that women can get automobile loans and other things they cannot get now.” On abortion, she fence-sits: “I don’t like it, but I am not in favor of a constitutional amendment making it illegal.” Occasionally, her ideological passions run high: a nondrinker, she once forbade liquor at a $50-a-plate fund-raising dinner, against all advice. Most of the guests left before the entertainment was over. (“She’s very stubborn,” says one critic. “I’ve never seen her let down.”) Would she be as forthright as Betty Ford on family matters? “I was a governor’s wife for four years,” she says, “and I never had a question I couldn’t answer. But I am still a wife and mother, and there may be some things I don’t want to discuss in public.”

Her political influence on Carter is believed to be considerable. “If you want something said to Jimmy,” advises a friend, “say it to Rosalynn.” Carter seems to agree. “Rosalynn’s my secret weapon,” he says.

She was born 48 years ago in Plains, the tiny Georgia town where Carter himself grew up and which has remained his home and the site of his peanut kingdom ever since. Rosalynn’s father, a mechanic, died of leukemia when she was 13, the eldest of four children. “My mother worked so hard,” Rosalynn recalls. “She and I both sewed. We made trousseaus. I haven’t sewed much since Jimmy became governor, but I did it for 21 years.” (Rosalynn retains her sense of thrift—she painted and decorated their nine-room Plains home, refinished the chairs, helped build a couch and buys her dresses from a shop in nearby Americus.)

Rosalynn and Carter were married in 1946. He had been away at the Naval Academy, encountered her at the Baptist church on one of his visits home and discovered that the little girl he vaguely remembered was all grown up. She was 19 and had spent two years at Georgia Southwestern.

In the Navy, Carter served in nuclear submarines. “He had a 13-month cruise,” Rosalynn remembers, “and I learned to be independent, to make the decisions that someone else had been making for me all my life.” (“Jimmy says coming home from campaigning is like the Navy,” she jokes. “It’s a honeymoon every weekend.”) Their three sons, Jack, Chip and Jeff, all now married and working in the Carter campaign, were born during his Navy service. They also have an 8-year-old daughter, Amy.

Navy life ended when Jimmy’s father died in 1953. The Carters returned home and began expanding the family farm supply business. “Jimmy did everything,” she says. “If a farmer wanted some fertilizer, Jimmy loaded it on his truck. I kept the books. I have always kept the financial records for our family, and I still do.”

Carter’s breakneck climb in politics—from the local school board to the state senate to the Georgia governorship—has left its mark on Rosalynn. “I would really get upset,” she confesses about attacks on Carter early in his political career. “It hurt most at the local level, where you expect everybody will be for you.” She has learned to steel herself. “When you’re the front-runner,” she now says smoothly, “you just expect it.”

Rosalynn also claims the possibility of defeat doesn’t bother her. “It wouldn’t devastate me to lose,” she says. “We built a cotton gin, and we bought a commercial peanut sheller. We could still do something else. But we are in this to win.” A nearby peanut farmer, who also served in the state senate, thinks the Carters will do all right. “Jimmy doesn’t smoke, drink or play around with women,” he says, “so that gives him a lot of time for hard work. Rosalynn doesn’t smoke, drink or play around with men, so she has a lot of time to do good work. They make a great pair.”

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