‘When Rosalynn spoke, the president listened’: White House colleagues, admirers remember influence of the former first lady who changed the role forever

She was hugely influential in her husband's policies while in the White House.
Published: Nov. 20, 2023 at 7:10 PM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Rosalynn Carter always had the ear of former President Jimmy Carter.

Even if her presence as a first lady wasn’t as boisterous as some before or after her, Rosalynn had an undeniable influence on her husband’s policy decisions.

Andrew Young, a former Georgia congressman, Atlanta mayor, and U.N. ambassador in the Carter administration, still distinctly remembers her sitting quietly in on cabinet meetings.

“She never spoke up in the cabinet, but after the cabinet was over, she’d been taking notes all the way through and I’m sure she gave the president her impressions of what everybody said and why they said it,” he said. “He didn’t listen to many other people with that kind of certainty.”

On her own, Rosalynn was remarkable in her achievements. She was an avid conservationist and advocate for Monarch butterflies, establishing several gardens where the insects could thrive in peace around the state. She was a staunch activist for destigmatizing mental illness and made conversations about mental health more normal than they’d ever been in the U.S. And she was a fierce fighter for the nation’s caregivers, establishing the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers to support them in their work.

All the while, she advocated behind the scenes for those who needed a little extra help — and did it all without asking for thanks.

“I don’t remember her ever having a press conference,” said Young. “She spoke to the one person who could and would make a difference. Every opinion she had that she expressed to the president got serious consideration.”

On Monday, after news of Rosalynn’s death spread across the world, people flocked to the Carter Center to pay their respects and learn more about the nation’s 39th First Lady.

“We’ve never been here before, and this was the perfect opportunity,” said Don Hauenstein, a Georgia native who now lives in Oregon with his wife, Denise. They came to the Carter Center on Monday, having never got the chance when they lived in Georgia.

“I am just taken aback by the whole thing,” he said. “It was just very emotional and very profound, what I learned here today.”

“She was the first, First Lady who had her own personal accomplishments,” added Denise. “And was well-loved by everybody.”

The woman who built houses with Habitat for Humanity and taught Carter Center interns Tai Chi at the pavilion on the grounds was truly larger than life.

“She was a remarkable woman who carried with her, as people said, ‘steel magnolia,’” said Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander. “As you hear people talk who were in the White House, they said if they needed to get things done then they often went to Rosalynn.”

Young put it another way.

“When Rosalynn spoke,” he said, “the president listened.”

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