RESTRICTED: A Southern Wife and Steel Magnolia

In last week’s excerpt from Rosalynn Carter’s autobiography, First Lady from Plains, the author wrote of her rural upbringing, her father’s death at 44 from leukemia and her teenage marriage to her best friend’s brother, Jimmy Carter. In Part II, she tells how a shy young wife and mother doggedly helped her husband fight his way from a peanut warehouse to the Georgia Governor’s Mansion—and the Oval Office.

Our married life began in Norfolk, Va. in the Navy, which Jimmy planned to make his career. When we arrived there, however, Jimmy had to be gone most of the time. He was at sea from Monday until Thursday or Friday every week, and then had duty on the ship one of the nights he was in port. I was 19 years old, had never been out of the rural South and was entirely on my own. I felt overwhelmed, but Jimmy never seemed to worry about me. He assumed that I could manage well.

About four months after we were married, I discovered I was pregnant. John William Carter, named after my grandfather Murray, was born July 3, 1947. I spent our first anniversary in the hospital with our new baby son.

In December, 1948, after Jimmy had completed submarine school in New London, Conn., he was assigned to the USS Pomfret in Hawaii. Jack and I joined him there and we all quickly went native. I made matching aloha shirts for Jimmy and Jack, and muumuus for me. Jimmy learned to play the ukelele, and I did the hula to songs like Lovely Hula Hands and In a Little Grass Shack while Jimmy strummed away. Our second son, James Earl Carter III, was born in 1950. We called him “Chip” and fed him papaya and poi instead of orange juice and cereal. In the midst of all this fun, Jimmy passed his examinations and qualified in submarines. We never wanted to leave, and decided that we would come back to Hawaii for good when Jimmy retired.

The next few years brought a third son, Donnel Jeffrey, born in 1952, and rising success in the Navy for Jimmy. He was accepted into the nuclear submarine program, headed by the formidable Captain (later Admiral) Hyman Rickover, and was assigned to the precommissioning detail of the Seawolf, the second nuclear submarine to be built. We made our last move in the Navy to Schenectady, N.Y.

And then came the phone call. Jimmy’s father had cancer and was dying. Jimmy left immediately for Plains.

It was not too long before I realized what lay ahead. And I couldn’t bear it. After his father’s funeral, Jimmy told me that he had decided to leave the Navy and return home. His only brother, Billy, was still in high school, the harvest season would soon begin and there was no one to take over the business that his father had worked hard to build. Besides, Jimmy pointed out, no matter how high he rose in the Navy, he would always be working for someone else. And there was no way his life could ever have the significance his father’s life had had.

I argued. I cried. I even screamed at him. I told him, “I don’t want to go home. I don’t want your mother and my mother telling me what to do every day.” When we came home to visit from the Navy my mother would say: “Are you sure you want to wear that dress? It needs to be dry-cleaned.” Well, I didn’t want that all the time. I loved our life in the Navy and the independence I had finally achieved. Plains had too many ghosts for me. But Jimmy would have none of it. His mind was made up, and he is a very stubborn man. It was the most serious argument of our marriage. For weeks we only spoke when we had to. I wondered how or if I could hide the way I felt or the tension between us from our families.

I had a long time to think about it as we packed our things, loaded the children into the car and began the long drive south. And I became more and more dejected the closer we got. I didn’t want to live in Plains. I had left there, moved on, changed. But Jimmy was determined—and happy. I stared straight ahead in sullen silence as we drove into town. He was grinning from ear to ear. Never had we been at such cross-purposes. I thought the best part of my life had ended. But Jimmy turned to me and smiled: “We’re home!”

I was miserable.

There is always a housing shortage in Plains, so we moved into a new government project that was home for about 10 families. We qualified easily: We had no income. The back door of our apartment opened onto a courtyard with clotheslines and a grassy area where most of the mothers sat during the day, chatting and watching the children. But I didn’t join them often. Besides the everyday chores, I was busy making curtains and slipcovers, and clothes for the children, and reading when I got a chance—the stereotypical 1950s housewife.

And I clung stubbornly to my new ways. The boys and I had been happy with a sandwich or a bowl of soup for lunch in the Navy. But in Plains, the big meal was traditionally served in the middle of the day. Farmers who bought fertilizer and seed from us and sold us their crops in the fall went to work in the fields before daybreak, and by lunchtime they were starving. And now Jimmy came home to lunch each day, and most of the time, since we had no restaurant in town, he brought some customer with him from the warehouse. I did not want to cook in the middle of the day and was determined to have our main meal at night. Jimmy strongly objected to my serving a small bowl of chicken noodle soup to a very large farmer, knowing full well his wife probably had meat, vegetables and potatoes ready for him at home. “How do you expect me to take care of three small children, have the house cleaned up and cook dinner for company every day?” I asked him.

“The house doesn’t have to be perfect,” he told me again and again. “If I went to his house, it wouldn’t be perfectly clean. And it doesn’t matter what we have for lunch. If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for him.”

My fears about life in a small community were realized several months after we had been home. Mother came to see me and said a neighbor was worried because I was spending so much time in the house. That was her polite way of letting me know that people were saying I was aloof. I had turned down all invitations, particularly those to play bridge. I didn’t want to play, and I have never been able to sit and chat over a cup of coffee for very long. I’d rather be making a dress or reading a book. And I knew my neighbors disapproved of the way I handled my children, putting them to bed at 6 so Jimmy and I could have time alone together, while the other children in the backyard stayed up until their parents went to bed.

But finally Mother’s words sank in, and I began to make a conscious effort to linger over the clothesline and be more sociable. I began to relax and to get involved with the community. Jimmy was studying new farming techniques, already thinking big about the business. The boys now had a full-time father, a great-grandfather, grandmothers and cousins. I was getting to know my sister, Allethea, who had only been 9 when I left home. Maybe, just maybe, it was going to be all right in the future.

Then, in the spring of 1955, Jimmy called me one afternoon to ask if I could come and answer the telephone for him so he could get out of the office and visit some customers. I went that afternoon, taking the children with me, and soon I was going one day a week, then two. Before long I began making out bills for the customers, posting sales to the farmers’ accounts and paying the bills.

Jimmy picked up where his father left off in community service. He also began taking on responsibilities outside Plains: organizing a seven-county planning commission, becoming state president of the Georgia Crop Improvement Association and state chairman for the March of Dimes. He became district governor of Lions International and chairman of Georgia’s district governors, the highest state position in the Lions.

On the morning of Jimmy’s 38th birthday he got up and announced to me that he was going to run for the state senate. I was thrilled at the idea. I had never even seen a state senator. Then I thought about the business. Jimmy would be in Atlanta almost three months of the year, except for weekends, and I would be totally in charge of the warehouse. He would be gone in winter, our slow season, and I decided I was more nervous about the political race than I was about the business.

Three months later, Jimmy was a state senator and I found I liked being a political wife. Then in the spring of 1966 Jimmy decided to run for Congress. In midstream, however, the campaign suddenly switched. The leading Democratic candidate for governor had a mild heart attack and withdrew from the race. Bo Callaway, Jimmy’s major opponent in the Congressional race, announced that he would run for governor instead. I was delighted. It left us with only token opposition, and what better way to run for office! But Jimmy was appalled. He went to Atlanta to try to persuade two of our most popular state Democratic officials to run for governor, but neither they nor anyone else wanted to face the formidable Republican opposition. Now Jimmy’s name was suddenly being mentioned as the only Democrat both willing and perhaps able to stop Callaway.

So we launched a family campaign. My brother-in-law, Billy, ran the warehouse, his wife, Sybil, filled in for me, and the rest of the family traveled across the state. Jimmy, Jack, Chip and I all had separate schedules. Jeff, who was 14, traveled with me, as did Miss Lillian much of the time.

We never stopped, no matter what happened, driving through every town in Georgia with posters of Jimmy taped on both sides of our borrowed cars. By primary day we were $66,000 in debt, and Jimmy had lost 22 pounds. At midnight we were certain that we were one of the two top vote getters who had made the primary runoff. I was so confident that I went to bed, but at 4:30 a.m. Jimmy woke me to say we had missed by 20,000 votes out of a million cast. We called the children together to tell them, and we all felt sick.

A month later Jimmy started campaigning again, though he didn’t officially announce his candidacy for four years. He didn’t intend to lose again.

On Jan. 12, 1971, Jimmy Carter became the 76th Governor of Georgia. I had not had time in the hectic months of campaigning to even consider what my responsibilities as the governor’s wife might be. So before the inauguration, while Jimmy was working on the state budget for the next year and preparing his program to present to the new legislature, I went to visit the wife of the outgoing segregationist governor, Mrs. Lester Maddox.

I arrived at the Governor’s Mansion, which was only three years old. It was built in the same style as the original Governor’s Mansion in the 1830s, but at the mid-20th-century cost of $2 million, an appropriation Jimmy had voted against as a state senator. He thought it should be built for much less, but I’ve always been glad he lost on that issue. It’s a beautiful, massive, classical building, with columns on all four sides, standing behind a tall wrought iron fence on 18 acres of rolling lawns and gardens.

I immediately felt at ease with Virginia Maddox. She was gentle and shy, a kind of mother figure. She took care of her home and was the kind of wife her husband wanted her to be. But her duties as First Lady were definitely not what I had in mind. I asked her who did the cooking and she said, “I do.” She’d had several cooks but had been unable to find one she could depend on.

I asked her who served dinner when she had small groups to entertain, and she said, “I do.” I asked her where her office was in the house; she said she didn’t have one. All her mail went to the governor’s office in the capitol and she saw little of it. Her secretary there turned down all requests for her to speak because she didn’t like making speeches, although the governor’s mother stood in for her sometimes, particularly at church events. That was the first thing she said that appealed to me!

The mansion was open to the public six days a week, she told me. And who greeted the tourists at the front door, shaking hands with each one? She did. I had been shaking hands for as long as I could remember and I didn’t plan to do it every day for the next four years.

I didn’t know what I was going to do when I left her that day. I came home and said to Jimmy: “What have we gotten ourselves into?” I didn’t want to spend all my time taking care of that big house. That’s not what I had campaigned for. I had already planned to become involved in mental health because while campaigning I had met many people who spoke of the problems of mental illness.

By the time I officially became the First Lady of Georgia, I began to feel better about what lay ahead. We settled quickly into our new home. For the first time in four years, the whole family was together again. A few nights after we moved in we were eating dinner in the family dining room on the State Floor, enjoying being waited on, when one of the maids came into the room and said, “If anybody has any shoes that need shining, if you’ll just set them outside your room door we’ll do them for you.” We just looked at each other, and finally Jack with his usual nonchalance said, “I think we can get used to this in a hurry.”

The first excitement at being in the Governor’s Mansion eventually wore thin in the midst of all the work and all the pressure, and I was tired. Not just tired—I was exhausted. I couldn’t even cry. If I shut myself in the bathroom for too long, one of the maids would knock on the door and say, “Are you all right, Mrs. Carter?”

I snapped at the children, at the maids and the security men. I have to have some time to myself, and there was always someone with me outside the house. I found myself in long and continuous arguments with Jimmy over everything, especially my discontent. He had no patience with it. He just didn’t understand what my problem was. For one thing, he was gone all of the time to his office.

I missed my friends. I missed walking up and down the street at home, and I missed the contact with neighbors. I felt trapped—by my schedule and by the security. In retrospect, the transition from the Governor’s Mansion to the White House was much easier.

I wanted to do something that wasn’t on a schedule. I wanted to drive a car myself, not have somebody drive me where I wanted to go. I wanted to buy a blond wig and go shopping incognito.

Finally, after months of hearing my threats about buying a blond wig, Jimmy began to pay attention. One day he said, “Why don’t you get in the car and go for a ride?” “Alone?” I asked. “Alone,” he said. “I’ll tell the state patrolmen to fix the radio in the car so you can call them if necessary and you just drive around for a while. Maybe it’ll make you feel better.”

I scrambled to get dressed and rushed to the car. I drove out of the yard, and what a feeling of freedom! I turned on the car radio and sang aloud with it as I drove all the way to Calhoun, 60 miles north of Atlanta. I went to see Edna Langford, whose daughter, Judy, had married our son Jack, and who by now was a very close friend. I knocked on her back door, and when she opened it I burst into tears. “What in the world is the matter?” she asked with concern. “Nothing. Everything,” I managed to say.

We spent a lovely afternoon together chatting about our children and many other womanly things. I even spent some time that day weeding the flower beds in her backyard. After a while, I decided to call home to the Governor’s Mansion to tell the state patrolmen where I had wound up because I had told them I wouldn’t get out of the car. They already knew where I was. “We watched you and alerted the state patrol offices all along the way,” they told me. Oh no, I thought, I still can’t get away. But nevertheless I drove home feeling much better about things.

Four years later, Jimmy Carter had announced his plans to try for the Presidency, and Rosalynn was again heading out on the campaign trail.

“I’m Mrs. Jimmy Carter. My husband’s running for President.”

“President of what?”

“President of the United States.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

The reaction was always the same—astonishment, disbelief.

Edna Langford and I had driven across the state line into Florida for our first venture into Presidential politics. We were nervous or, rather, I was nervous. I had never campaigned outside of Georgia, but Edna and I both considered ourselves seasoned campaigners. She had worked in all of Jimmy’s campaigns, and in those of her husband, who was a state senator, and Florida was close to home, where maybe people wouldn’t be too different. The date was April 14, 1975—and the election was 18 months away!

With a few planned destinations we set out, stopping in every community, shaking hands and passing out brochures, getting all the press we could by knocking on doors of radio and television stations and newspaper offices. I would say: “I’m Mrs. Jimmy and I thought you might want to interview me.”

Coming home from that first trip, we had some valuable hints for our next forays. Among them:

Stay in people’s homes. It works. We could learn about people and the issues bothering them, but also our hosts would feel personally involved in the campaign and want to go out and work even harder for us. With Jimmy, the family and the staff traveling, there was no way we could have paid for hotel rooms and still have had money for brochures and television advertisements and campaign offices, eventually in every state.

Muster up the courage and intrude—on meetings, events, carnivals, anyplace where people gather. This was difficult at first, but I soon discovered that no one cares; in fact, they may welcome it.

One day, for example, when we had been driving in the Florida panhandle, we saw a large crowd by the side of the road. Stopping, we learned that we had come upon the weekly cattle sale. What luck! There were farmers everywhere and Jimmy was a farmer. We spoke to everyone on the grounds, then walked into the barn and found Buddy Neal, president of the Cattlemen’s Association of Florida and an influential politician. He stopped the auctioneer, and while the cow waited, I addressed the crowd. As I stepped away the auctioneer took up exactly where he had left off, hardly missing a beat!

For the next year and a half we were on the go constantly. It was like a very demanding job, with pressures and deadlines (more than 30 primaries and caucuses and one general election).

The last few weeks of the primary campaign were unnerving and lonely. I never saw Jimmy or the children anymore. We just kept working without going home, and nothing seemed to be going right. The only thing I knew to do was to keep smiling in public and try to call Jimmy every night if I could find him, hoping to hear an encouraging word, and it usually came. He felt as bad as I did over the losses but always said to me, “Don’t be too discouraged. Count the delegates we’re getting, not the losses.” And the delegates were adding up.

The Carter sweep at the 1976 Democratic National Convention and victory over the incumbent President Gerald Ford that November brought the Carters to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Mr. President!”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes. You. Come with me to see our bedroom.” It was our first day in the White House, and though we should have been exhausted by the Inauguration, the parade and the thought of attending seven Inaugural balls still to come that night, the excitement of the day and exploring our new home made us tireless. The whole family was there: brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, all our children and, of course, our mothers. Miss Lillian was going to sleep in the Queens’ Bedroom that night, and my mother in the Lincoln Bedroom, and they were thrilled.

On our first afternoon in the White House, our family roamed the second floor hall that runs the length of the house with beautiful semicircular windows at each end. We had read about the secret stairway that connects the Presidential living quarters on the second floor to the third floor, and the children quickly found it, pushing a portion of the wall which opens to reveal the stairway.

We hadn’t finished the tour before we lost Jimmy. After a while, the children and I walked over to the West Wing and entered the Oval Office. We stood there looking at the room and looking at Jimmy sitting behind the President’s desk, framed by the President’s flag and the flag of the United States. I had to catch my breath to believe I was really there, to absorb the reality that my husband was actually President of the United States and that I was First Lady. It was sobering, a very emotional moment. Then Jimmy grinned, and I smiled back at him. He looked just right sitting there.

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