It’s been a bad day personally, but learning the extraordinary Rosalynn Carter passed away at home in Plains, GA this morning brought a mix of sorrow yet admiration – for a life so well lived. A life of service to others. In truth, Rosalynn Carter who had developed dementia was in a way gone for a while now. Still, the work she did and the example she set AND her accomplishments established a new standard even if (as is the case with her husband) too much is unknown or under-appreciated. There’s an excellent write up in USA Today about her life. I urge you to read it. In fact, you OWE it to yourself and the Carters to read it. Surely you can take five to ten minutes of your time to see the highlights and marvel. And perhaps as I often do when it comes to Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter experience the mix of awe combined with sadness bordering on anger so much was ignored by “Official Washington” (both elected/appointed officials including so many Democrats and journalists) and marvel.
There is so much to say, the problem is where to begin? Perhaps with this: Before there was First Lady Hillary Clinton using the position to push for specific policy goals there was First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Yes, the legendary Eleanor Roosevelt was a visible and activist First Lady and expanded the possibilities. And people were starstruck by Jackie Kennedy’s glamour but it was Rosalynn Carter who turned being First Lady into a full-time job. Complete with office space and staff in the East Wing and a couple of specific policy goals. She didn’t just hold “luncheons” with (mostly women) journalists and do some photo ops, she showed up with a briefcase full of stuff to work on and work she did. Both at home and abroad advancing the cause of providing access to mental health care (and reducing the stigma) and human rights in general.
Again I must note the bulk of Washington viewed her as they did her husband – a rube from down south. But like her husband Rosalynn Carter was made of stern stuff and kept working away, doing the hard work of improving other people’s lives. Those bulk of those in DC who were oh so impressed with themselves and looked down their noses at the Carters never accomplished even half of what she did. (Or her husband) The supposed “rubes” were in fact ahead of their time. Even now some of those who were around then are embarrassed to admit how wrong they were about those four years, or the extraordinary work in the decades after leaving the WH.
I think part of it has to do with the class Rosalynn Carter had. She was smart, capable, determined and tough to be sure but her understated nature both made her effective (some would wonder in retrospect how the hell they’d gotten “rolled” by her) yet prevented her from getting credit she so richly deserved. But she set a new standard for First Ladies. We’ve had enough since then to know some aren’t up to the job. Some try at least to use the position to do the kind of good Rosalynn Carter did but don’t accomplish as much, even if their PR machines make it seem so. Still, the role of First Lady as we view it was established by none other than Rosalynn Carter.
There is so much, and even the linked article only scratches the surface but here’s a taste from it:
She led efforts to pass the Mental Health Systems Act in 1980, which provides grants to community mental health centers.
Carter also lobbied for immunizing children against preventable diseases while her husband was Georgia governor and president.
She partnered with Betty Bumpers, first lady of Arkansas from 1971 to 1975, to promote vaccinations as a routine health practice. In 1981, 95% of children starting school were immunized against measles and other diseases.
The article goes on to note that after the WH and returning home to Plains Rosalynn and her husband continued to make a difference. Their founding the Carter Center in 1982 led to incalculable good around the world, including:
Through the Carter Center, the former president and first lady have traveled the world working to stop Guinea worm disease, increase agricultural production in Africa, and advocate for human rights.
Carter created the Carter Center’s Mental Health program to continue fighting the stigma and discrimination of people with mental illnesses.
She also established Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism to encourage in-depth reporting on mental health.
Please click on the link to the USA Today write up. Again I say she deserves a few minutes of your own and everyone else’s time. And not just for her four years as First Lady. I chose the title picture for a reason. I’ve sometimes seen it said that Jimmy Carter doesn’t rank among our best Presidents (I disagree) but even many critics would say he ranks at the top of former Presidents. His post Presidential years were spent establishing the Carter Center and as with his Presidency Rosalynn was his true partner. Both at home and abroad so much time and effort was given to the service of others. Sometimes even dangerous work, overseeing elections in troubled countries, going to remote places in Africa to help improve agriculture to relieve hunger or make those inexpensive filters the Carter Center had created to filter those Guinea Worms from water would spare millions from debilitating illness and death. Travelling to the remote places was often as I said quite literally dangerous.
I’ll be the first to say Jimmy Carter has been without a doubt our FINEST former President. And that wife Rosalynn, his partner through 77 years of marriage has been our FINEST former First Lady. That picture? Much has been made including some awesome memes about Jimmy Carter out there on Habitat For Humanity builds (and he was a helluva carpenter!) but often Rosalynn was right out there with him. And not just pouring tea or handing out water as you can see!
If I’m wrong and there is a God then God broke the mold when he made her. We won’t see the likes of her again. But for anyone regardless of gender if you want to look to someone as a role model you’d do well to follow Rosalynn Carter’s example.