“It always gets applause when I mention it publicly,” Carter chuckled during an interview as the couple prepared to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary in July 2016. “That’s the surest applause that we get.”
A savvy politician to the end, he appreciated what played well publicly. But it was in private that their mutual love and respect for each other really emerged:
The quick kiss they stole on a Habitat for Humanity build site in 2016 when they thought no one noticed them in their hard hats and heavy work clothes. The way they held hands to walk back for the evening service at little Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains hours after the tourists at his morning Sunday school class had all gone home. The nicknames that tended to slip out when they were among friends:
“Rosie,” he’d call her.
“My Jimmy,” she’d call him.
He’d been her Jimmy pretty much from the moment when, as a teenager, she saw his photo hanging on his younger sister’s bedroom wall at the Carter family farm on the outskirts of Plains. By then he was away at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and they didn’t really know each other.
“I think I fell in love first with the photograph,” Rosalynn Carter once said.
For him it took just one date. Jimmy Carter was home on leave from Annapolis and looking for something to do when he asked his little sister’s friend to a movie.
“I went home and told my mother, ‘She’s the one. I’m going to marry her,’” he recalled during his annual town hall meeting with Emory University freshmen in 2014.
The students, some 70 years his junior and packed into gymnasium bleachers, burst into raucous applause. So did pretty much the whole world a few years later when the long-married couple appeared smooching on the giant scoreboard while watching a Braves game at Turner Field. “Presidential Kiss Cam,” the Braves called it, and darned if the clip didn’t go viral. Everyone loved the Carters’ love story, it seemed, because it felt so real.
Like every married couple, they sometimes failed to see eye-to-eye. They wrote one book together (1987′s “Everything to Gain,” about adjusting to their post-White House life) and swore they’d never do that again. Even earlier, in 1953, they were seven years and three sons into their marriage when Jimmy Carter’s father died and he decided to end his Navy career and move back to Plains to take over the family business.
Decided, he later regretfully admitted, without discussing it with Rosalynn first.
“I was so mad I wouldn’t speak to Jimmy,” she recalled about the long drive back to Plains from upstate New York, site of their last Navy posting. Instead, she used their young boys as a go-between. “I’d say, ‘Jack, tell your daddy I need to go to the bathroom.’”
That hiccup aside, they never stopped being a team. When Jimmy entered politics, Rosalynn pushed aside her fear of public speaking to campaign for him for governor and president. When, as first lady of the United States she wanted to continue her work on behalf of the mentally ill, he created the President’s Commission on Mental Health that led to important legislation being enacted. As co-founders of The Carter Center in Atlanta, they spent decades forging peace and fighting disease together in hotspots and forgotten places around the world. And every year, they spent a week hammering side-by-side for Habitat for Humanity.
Perhaps nothing more fully demonstrated the depth of their love than the prospect of losing it. In early 2018, Rosalynn Carter had major intestinal surgery that left her husband “deathly afraid;” he prayed for hours until the doctor came in and told him she’d survived the procedure. His own brain cancer diagnosis in 2015 had “rocked” her, her friends confided privately at the time; a year later, with his cancer in remission and their 70th wedding anniversary looming, Mrs. Carter recalled thinking about life without her Jimmy: “I didn’t know what I was going to do. That was … earthshaking.”
The playfulness of their relationship also was on full display during that interview. Theirs’ might well be a love affair for the ages, the former president suggested, but did you know she’d turned him down the first time he proposed? He was at Annapolis then and while she kept writing to him, “Mostly her letters were about all the boys she was going with.”
Rosalynn Carter just shook her head and rolled her eyes at that. But she could give as good as she got. Of all the stories involving his famous parishioners, Former Maranatha pastor Brandon Patterson once said, his favorite concerned what happened in the moments after Carter became president.
“He’s standing on a balcony with Rosalynn, he looks over at her and says, ‘See, aren’t you glad you didn’t marry the other guy?’” Patterson said in 2018. “And Miss Rosalynn looks back at him and says, ‘Why? If I’d married (the other guy), he would be president.’”