Rosalynn Carter honored by family, friends, first ladies and presidents, including husband Jimmy

The tribute service at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta marked the second day of a three-day schedule of public events celebrating the former first lady and global humanitarian who died Nov. 19

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter attends a tribute service for his wife former first lady Rosalynn Carter, at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., November 28, 2023.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

Rosalynn Carter was memorialized Tuesday as a matriarch who felt more comfortable among the impoverished and vulnerable than world leaders, as a rare gathering of all living U.S. first ladies and multiple presidents, including her 99-year-old husband Jimmy Carter in the front row, mourned her.

The tribute service at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta marked the second day of a three-day schedule of public events celebrating the former first lady and global humanitarian who died Nov. 19 at home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96. Tributes began Monday in the Carters’ native Sumter County and continued in Atlanta.

“My mother was the glue that held our family together through the ups and downs and thicks and thins of our family’s politics,” her son James Earl “Chip” Carter III said.

The former president, who is 10 months into home hospice care and hadn’t been seen in public since September, watched from his wheelchair, reclined a bit with his legs up and covered by a blanket with his wife’s face on it, with Chip and his daughter Amy holding his hands. Their other sons, Jeff and Jack, flanked them.

The former president stayed Monday night at The Carter Center, CEO Paige Alexander said, steps from where the former first lady lay in repose. “He never wants to be very far from her,” she said. “He had a good night. He’s rested.”

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, their longtime friends, were among the dignitaries. Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with former first ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, paid their respects, as did Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff. Georgia’s U.S. senators and Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife Marty Kemp joined more than 1,000 people in the sanctuary. Former Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush were invited but will not attend.

The service reflected Rosalynn Carter’s status as a global figure while emphasizing her more private profile as a family matriarch who preferred a simple life and held a deep religious faith.

“She had met kings and queens, presidents, others in authority, powerful corporate leaders and celebrities,” Chip Carter said. “She said the people that she felt the most comfortable with and the people she enjoyed being with the most were those that lived in absolute abject poverty.”

The pews filled with political power players, but front and center were her children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren — all surrounding Jimmy Carter, who grieved not as a former president, but as her partner of 77 years.

The speakers came from many chapters of her long life: Chip as the son who remembers his once-shy mother coming into her own in business and politics; Kathryn Cade as the White House aide who stayed on as a close adviser as Rosalynn Carter helped build The Carter Center and its global reach; Judy Woodruff as the journalist who covered the Carter presidential campaign; and Amy, who read a love note her father wrote to her mother 75 years before.

“Her time as First Lady was really just one chapter in a life that was about caring for others,” Cade said.

Woodruff recalled Rosalynn Carter lobbying lawmakers, campaigning separately from her husband, attending Cabinet meetings and playing key roles — including being the first presidential adviser to suggest Camp David as a negotiating place for Epypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin. The decision led to historic peace accords between the two countries. “Without Rosalynn Carter, I don’t believe there would have been a President Carter,” Woodruff said.

Whether Jimmy Carter would participate was a day-by-day question. It was his first public appearance since September, when he and Rosalynn Carter rode together in the Plains Peanut Festival parade, visible only through open windows in a Secret Service vehicle. Jimmy Carter, who was with his wife during her final hours, did not appear publicly during any part of a public motorcade through and wreath-laying ceremony Monday at Rosalynn Carter’s alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus.

Alexander said the trip to Atlanta was “hard” for the former president but “this is her last trip up and it’s probably his, too. … He’s determined.”

The Carters married in 1946 and became the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history. Jimmy Carter is the longest-lived president; Rosalynn Carter was the second-longest lived first lady, trailing only Bess Truman, who died at 97.

Praised for a half-century of advocacy for better mental health care in America and reducing stigmas attached to mental illness, Rosalynn Carter brought attention to the tens of millions of people who work as unpaid caregivers in U.S. households, and was acclaimed for how integral she was to her husband’s political rise and in his terms as Georgia’s governor and the 39th president.

Chip Carter recalled how his mom got him into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever met,” he said. “And pretty to look at, too.”

Indeed, the Carters, perhaps much more because of him than her, never settled comfortably into Washington power circles, even after winning the White House. They were later on the periphery of the unofficial “Presidents Club” that has made friends out of former White House occupants who once operated as rivals and reconvenes publicly — in whole or in part — for inaugurations and funerals.

Biden, who plans to eulogize Jimmy Carter at his state funeral when the time comes, is indisputably the friendliest ally Carter has had in the Oval Office since leaving Washington in 1981.

Rosalynn Carter’s funeral will take place Wednesday in Plains, with an invitation-only service at Maranatha Baptist Church, where the Carters have been members since returning to Georgia after his presidency. She will be buried after a private graveside service on a plot the couple will share, visible from the front porch of the home they built before Jimmy Carter’s first political campaign in 1962.

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