GPB's Peter Biello speaks with historian E. Stanly Godbold about the life and legacy of Rosalynn Carter.

Rosalynn Carter at the 1975 Mental Health America Conference, formerly the Mental Health Association Annual Conference.

Rosalynn Carter at the 1975 Mental Health America Conference, formerly the Mental Health Association Annual Conference.

Credit: Mental Health America

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has died at the age of 96. The Plains, Ga., native was married to former President Jimmy Carter for 77 years. Jimmy Carter remains in hospice care in Plains. 

She was an unconventional first lady whose impact goes far beyond her work in the White House. For a look back on her life and legacy, we turn to E. Stanly Godbold. He’s the author of two biographies of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. He spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.


Peter Biello: Can you tell us a little bit about Rosalynn Carter's early life?

Stanly Godbold: Yes, she was originally Rosalynn Smith. Her father was a mechanic who died when she was 14 years old. Her mother was trained as a schoolteacher, but never really taught school. And when her husband died, she became the primary breadwinner for the family. She worked at the post office. Rosalynn was the oldest of four children. Rosalynn was very pretty as a child and later as a woman. She was petite. She was precise, but she was a very hard worker. She was really interested in learning. She was interested in traveling. She read maps when she was at the Plains school. And her mother reared her to be a dedicated Methodist-style Christian and a very, very hard worker. So she was ideally prepared in her youth to be the perfect partner for Jimmy Carter.

Peter Biello: Was she at all interested in politics at an early age?

Stanly Godbold: She was. But mostly through her reading and her interest in travel.

Peter Biello: As first lady of Georgia and then as first lady of the United States, she was very interested in mental health care. Why did she take such a particular interest in mental health care?

Stanly Godbold: Well, during the campaign for governor, which she was very involved in, people would come up to her and ask her, "What would your husband do about mental health care once he's elected?" And she didn't know what the answer was. So she asked Jimmy. And of course, the answer was that they would try to provide the best mental health care possible for Georgia citizens. And so from that beginning, she became absolutely passionate about it. She promoted it in Georgia. But when she became first lady of the United States, she was a very atypical first lady. After the inauguration, she went to work. Carter appointed a mental health commission. She couldn't be chairman of it since she was first lady, but she was honorary chair and ... she pretty much ran it. Mental illness is a huge challenge because the first problem is just defining it. What is it? And then after that, how do you treat it? How do you get rid of the stigma associated with it? And how do you get insurance companies to provide insurance coverage for people who are mentally ill? Rosalynn accomplished all of those things. The insurance companies, getting the insurance companies to provide insurance [...] happened only when Obama was president. She worked at it lifelong and made a lot of progress with it and leaves behind an institution that will continue her work.

Peter Biello: You mentioned that she was an atypical first lady. One of the ways it seems like she was atypical was that she sat in on meetings with her husband while he was president to keep apprised of things that were going on. She wanted to be knowledgeable when the press asked her questions about what was going on in the country, in the world. How unusual was that for a first lady to be involved in that way?

Stanly Godbold: It apparently was very unusual. Rosalynn Carter established the office of the first lady in the East Wing of the White House. She had a staff of 22. She had a press secretary. The sitting in on meetings is atypical as well. She sat in on a few cabinet-level meetings and got a lot of criticism for that. But she was just there to learn what was going on. She did not participate in the discussion. She had a regular lunch meeting with the president, usually in the Oval Office, where they discussed matters of state, not family issues. I think you could say she was really his primary adviser on political as well as social issues. She would go out into the country, interview people and make speeches. She would come back and tell Jimmy what people were thinking, what they wanted. Carter said she was his equal partner. She was truly his equal partner. Some people would even argue she was a better politician than he was, and I think he would probably agree with that.

Peter Biello: In what sense? In what sense was she better than he was?

Stanly Godbold: Well, she was good at planning strategy and understanding what people wanted and what a politician should say. But also she had the personal touch. If she would make a speech in Iowa, Mississippi or Massachusetts or someplace, but it would be more than just a political speech. She would ask about people's families, about their kids, about their health issues, anything to make it personal. And that tended to be very effective.

Peter Biello: She and President Carter had a long post-presidency and they were very active in their work across the world in a variety of areas. I'm wondering if you could tell us about a few of those areas that you think, based on your research, meant the most to Rosalynn Carter?

Stanly Godbold: She, of course, was interested in every aspect of it, the peacemaking aspect of it. They would go to a foreign country where there was a civil war, some sort of dispute, meet with the disputants and tried to get a cease-fire or actually a peace treaty. Rosalynn always went. She always went. And she always met the wives of the politicians who were involved. And when she was interviewed, she wanted to talk about politics. She wanted to talk about peace. She did not want to talk about fashions and recipes. One of the things that the Carter Center did very well is that they promoted free democratic elections in many countries around the world. Rosalynn was always there counting the ballots, helping work out the rules. She was personally involved in all of it. Rosalynn, probably as first lady and post-first lady, accomplished more to make the world a more caring place, as she said she wanted to do, than any others. And I'm hoping that she will start getting more and more credit for it. I think that's happening.