The Formidable Rosalynn Carter

I saw Rosalynn Carter angry only twice. Both occasions involved Ronald Reagan, who had crushed Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, and both reflected her passion and decency.

The first concerned a free public swimming pool in the Carters’ hometown, Plains, Ga., that they built in the 1950s for the Lions Club. She recounted to me during an interview that when Reagan was president, local conservatives turned it into a whites-only private club. Reagan made people “comfortable with their prejudices,” she snapped.

The second related to the landmark Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, a major investment in community mental health centers that Mrs. Carter spearheaded with the help of her husband’s other archrival, Senator Edward Kennedy. Sitting in her office at the Carter Center in 2015, she grew upset as she described how Reagan had defunded the ambitious program, leaving tens of thousands of people untreated. It took 30 years — until Obamacare — before ​​federal funding for community mental health treatment centers was fully resurrected with her help.

Perhaps in death Mrs. Carter’s role as this country’s premier champion of mental health will finally be properly appreciated. It’s only one of the many unheralded accomplishments of a formidable and gracious woman who belongs in the first rank of influential first ladies.

Over nearly 80 years, the Carters forged the longest, closest and arguably most productive high-level political partnership in American history — more seamless than those between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt or Bill and Hillary Clinton because it lacked the personal drama of those marriages.

Although each agreed that the secret to a long, happy marriage was to spend some time apart, they did almost everything together — from learning to read the Bible in Spanish before bed to dodging gunfire in Africa after the presidency and fly-fishing in Siberia when he was 90 and she was 88.

The Carters were married for 77 years, a distinction enjoyed by an estimated 1,000 or so American couples. But they knew each other for an astonishing 96 years, first meeting a few days after Rosalynn Smith was born in 1927 when Jimmy’s mother, the nurse who delivered Rosalynn, brought her toddler over to see the new baby.

On their first date in 1945, when Jimmy was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, they went to a movie neither remembered. Nearly half a century later, Jimmy wrote a poem entitled “Rosalynn”:

Mr. Carter said he would not have won his long-shot 1976 bid for the presidency without her charm, hard work and smart advice. Spending an astonishing 75 days campaigning in Florida, she proved instrumental in helping him prevail in a historic primary there. His victory in Florida over George Wallace all but assured his nomination and marked the end of the racist wing of the Democratic Party.

Inside the White House, Mrs. Carter was the first presidential spouse with her own professional policy staff. In 1977, she assumed an unprecedented role as her husband’s personal envoy and forcefully confronted authoritarian heads of state in Latin America on their human rights abuses. She took action to combat age discrimination by working closely with the congressman Claude Pepper to loosen rules on mandatory retirement, which affected the careers of millions. And touched by the plight of the Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing communist Vietnam, among others, she persuaded her husband to more than double the number of refugees admitted from Southeast Asia.

Mr. Carter described their relationship as “like one person acting in concert.” Asked about his decision-making on foreign policy, he said that he confirmed his judgment with “Rosalynn, Cy” — Cyrus Vance, his secretary of state — “Zbig” — Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser — “and Ham” — Hamilton Jordan, his chief of staff. As the Time correspondent Hugh Sidey wrote in 1979, “Note the order.” On the domestic side, Mrs. Carter pushed her husband hard to appoint more women to important positions, and he did, naming five times as many women to the federal bench as all of his predecessors combined.

Known as the Steel Magnolia, a nickname she liked, Mrs. Carter sparked controversy when she sat in (silently) on cabinet meetings. But she was enthusiastically welcomed there as a critical part of the policy process. While most presidential aides view first ladies warily, the senior staff in the Carter White House often wished the stubborn president listened even more to his impressive wife, especially on politics, where, as Mr. Carter acknowledged, her instincts were better than his.

One achievement with contemporary resonance: Mrs. Carter, along with Betty Bumpers, the wife of Senator Dale Bumpers, traveled around the country and persuaded 33 state legislatures to change their laws to require proof of vaccination for children to enter school. This led to a joke in the late 1970s: Everywhere the first lady goes, kids cry — for fear of getting a shot.

In 1980, Mrs. Carter thought her husband was “seemingly pompous” in explaining why he wouldn’t make politically expedient decisions. As she recounted in her memoirs, he would say something like, “I’ll never do anything to hurt my country.” And she’d reply, “The thing you can do to hurt your country most is not get re-elected.”

When Mr. Carter lost, Mrs. Carter grew depressed and wanted her husband to run for president again against Reagan. When Mr. Carter rejected that idea out of hand, she helped him reinvent the post-presidency by establishing the Carter Center. They traveled the globe together, “waging peace,” as they put it, supervising elections, starting impressive global health initiatives and building houses for the poor. On the road, Mrs. Carter served as note-taker in important peace talks; at home, she established fellowships for journalists covering mental health issues and, as the founder of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, did as much as anyone to popularize a concept that barely had a name until the 1980s.

The Carters’ eight-decade love affair was one for the ages. When I was at work on my biography, Mrs. Carter shared with me her husband’s letters from sea. One of them from 1949 read:

Rosalynn Carter kept those letters in a drawer close by until the day she died.

Jonathan Alter is a journalist and the author of “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.”

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