OPINION: There could be no ‘Jimmy Carter’ without Rosalynn by his side

U.S. President Jimmy Carter makes his inaugural speech after being sworn in on January 20, 1977 on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Credit: David Hume Kennerly

Credit: David Hume Kennerly

U.S. President Jimmy Carter makes his inaugural speech after being sworn in on January 20, 1977 on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

On the day in 1962 that Jimmy Carter prepared to file papers for his very first political campaign for the state Senate, he went home to change from his khaki work clothes into a coat and tie. That’s when Rosalynn Carter, then a young housewife in their hometown of Plains, asked him whether he was going to a funeral.

“It seems inconceivable to me now, but I had not consulted her about my plans,” he wrote in his autobiography, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.”

“Inconceivable” seems to be the right word because from that day forward what started out as a traditional, loving marriage between a dashing Navy midshipman and his 18-year-old hometown sweetheart grew into one of the great political partnerships in American history.

For every political race Jimmy Carter ran, Rosalynn Carter gave him the time and organization he needed to get it done. For every office he occupied, from the state Senate to the White House, she provided insight, input and unconditional support.

In politics, they say that behind every man stands a great woman. But that was never the case with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, because for everyone who knew them, Rosalynn and Jimmy were always side by side.

“He would not have won his campaign for the state Senate without her or the campaign for governor,” said their grandson Jason Carter, a former state senator who also once ran for governor. “She was, by far, the best politician in the family.”

Anything missing in Jimmy’s abilities as a campaigner or leader, Jason said his grandmother could supply it. Any hole he had in his resume or skill set, she was able to fill it. “They were able to do it in a way that ended up being a powerhouse couple,” he said.

That was an assessment her husband offered often, too. Without Rosalynn Carter as his partner, there would have been no “President Jimmy Carter.”

Their early lives unfolded like an old-fashioned love story, growing up three years and 3 miles apart. They both have said they fell in love with each other even before their first date. After a brief courtship, Jimmy proposed during a Christmas break when he was home from college, but Rosalynn turned him down.

In her own autobiography, Rosalynn Carter explained that she wanted to earn her college degree first, something her father hoped for before he died. And apart from her father’s hopes for her, it was clear she had ambitions far beyond what was expected of young women in the 1940s.

They agreed to marry the next spring after she finished school. After several adventurous years in the Navy, the couple moved home to Plains to take over the family farm when Jimmy Carter’s father died.

Along with following the path as a supportive wife and mother, Rosalynn grew into the role as her husband’s full-fledged professional and political partner.

When Jimmy ran for the state Senate in 1962, Rosalynn helped him campaign and ran the family farming business as he spent days and nights on the campaign trail. When he joined the General Assembly and his work kept him in Atlanta for nearly three months a year, Rosalynn stayed in Plains to keep the business operating.

When he ran for governor in 1970, the two nearly always did separate events in order to cover twice as much territory as he could cover alone.

“I was surprised to learn that she liked the art of politics,” Jimmy Carter once wrote. “In fact she liked the entire political process more than I did.”

When Jimmy ran for the White House, Rosalynn clipped articles, studied potential issues and suggested policies for him to tackle, including, famously, mental health care. A cousin of hers had once been treated at the now shuttered Georgia Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, which was infamous for its poor treatment of patients sent there.

During their time in the Washington, it was Rosalynn Carter, not Hillary Clinton, who was first to establish a formal Office of the First Lady, with office space in the East Wing of the White House, amplifying the issues she believed were essential.

Following their White House years and the pain of losing reelection, they continued their partnership through the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity. They also returned home to live in Plains, where they were a constant presence in the community together for the next 40-plus years.

Rosalynn Carter leaves behind a legacy of advocacy for mental health care services and support for the caregivers we all depend on. The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers at Georgia Southwestern State University now offers support and training for both.

But with all so much good she leaves behind, there’s also a void impossible to fill.

For the past 50 years, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter had hot dogs and bloody marys together nearly every Saturday. They read the Bible together every night. They went on walks together. They held hands.

People who attended their Sunday school classes at Maranatha Baptist Church invariably described seeing Jimmy and Rosalynn together. Always.

Now that Rosalynn Carter has died, family and friends are struggling to imagine one without the other.

“There’s the most incredible beauty for them to be able to live together these last days. There is no better way that anybody would have wanted them to live out those last days,” Jason Carter said.

But he added sadly: “He’s now spent the last two nights without her. I don’t know if he ever thought he was going to do that.”

For the first time nearly anyone can remember, it’s just Jimmy Carter, without Rosalynn by his side.

Former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter wave to a beauty queen during the Peanut Festival on Saturday September 26, 2015 in Plains. The Carters are a major presence at the annual event, including the 2016 festival where they signed books, handed out road race awards and took in the parade. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

Credit: Ben Gray/AJC

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Credit: Ben Gray/AJC

Jimmy Carter kisses Rosalynn Carter during ceremony in which he receives the Final Report of the President's Commission on Mental Health. April 27, 1978. (White House Staff Photographer / Jimmy Carter Library)

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

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Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

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