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The Formidable Rosalynn Carter

Opinion|The Formidable Rosalynn Carter


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Guest Essay

Nov. 20, 2023, 1:08 p.m. ET

A woman holding a landline phone to her ear. She has a short haircut, is wearing dark sunglasses and is sporting an orchid corsage.
Rosalynn Carter, wife of Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, campaigns on telephone in Philadelphia in May, 1976.Credit...Mikki Ansin/Getty Images

By Jonathan Alter

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

I only saw Rosalynn Carter angry 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 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.

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