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Remembering First Lady Rosalynn Carter


This is FRESH AIR. Former first lady Rosalynn Carter will be laid to rest tomorrow in Georgia. She died last week at the age of 96, two days after it was announced that she had entered hospice care. As first lady, Rosalynn Carter became known for her humanitarian work and as a dedicated advocate for mental health care. Terry Gross interviewed Carter in 1984 about her memoir, "First Lady From Plains." Here's an excerpt of their conversation.


TERRY GROSS: Is there any unofficial job description that exists for first ladies, any guide that exists...


GROSS: ...On paper anywhere?


GROSS: How did you know what was expected of you?

CARTER: Well, I really didn't know what I could do when I got to the White House. Jimmy had been governor, and I had worked on projects that I was interested in and had had to learn a lot of things the hard way at home because there were no precedents. We had a new mansion and no staff, and I had to start from scratch and learn how to do everything, entertain. In the state legislature in Washington, I entertained members of Congress. I entertained ambassadors from foreign countries. In Washington, I entertained heads of state.

So I thought that it would possibly be a little bit like the governor's mansion, and it was. And when I got there, I learned that a first lady can do just about what she wishes to. She can be a hostess at the White House and not be involved in issues if she doesn't want to be and not be involved in projects. But there's so many opportunities when you get there that - and so many things that you can do that I think it would be a real waste not to take advantage of those opportunities.

GROSS: How did you choose your priorities in the White House?

CARTER: Well, I had always - for many years, not always, but for many years worked on mental health issues ever since Jimmy was governor. And I became interested in that in traveling around the state in the campaign and talking to people and - about their problems, and that came up so often, what is - what will your husband do for my mentally retarded child, or my brother or sister, or my relative who is mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed, mentally ill. And so I asked Jimmy about it one day, and he said that if that was what I wanted to do and what I wanted to work on, it would be good, because he'd been in the state Senate, and he knew the need. And when we got to the governor's mansion, I knew that's what I wanted to do. I'd always worked on women's issues and been - supported the Equal Rights Amendment. There were so many things I wanted to do when I got to the White House, and I was just eager to get started on my projects when I got there.

GROSS: You were sometimes represented as being the power behind him who was very influential. What did you think of that press coverage?

CARTER: Well, some of it was ridiculous. People who said that I was the - made the decisions and stuff, well, just didn't know Jimmy Carter. He is a very strong person. And - but I did go to cabinet meetings. The reason I went to cabinet meetings was because Jimmy got so tired of me jumping on him every day when he came home to see why did you do this or why did you do something that I had seen on television or read in the newspaper or heard on the radio? And finally, he said, why don't you come to the cabinet meetings and then you'll know why we make these decisions or why we do these things.

So I went in. It was very comfortable. I sat in the row around the back of the room with the secretaries who were there and learned just generally what the administration was doing, which was really important to me because I went out in the country, I - people asked me about what they were doing. I never knew details, but I could tell them generally what the administration was trying to do. And also, I could see negative news stories and not worry about them if I knew the true facts about something. It was good for my own peace of mind. And if you live there for four years with all of the criticisms, you have to be very confident that you're doing what's right. And I had needed to know that - I needed for my own self, for my own benefit, to know that Jimmy was doing what he was doing and why he was doing it and that it was good for the country and best for the country.

GROSS: Were you criticized at all by cabinet members who felt uncomfortable that the president's wife was sitting in on the meetings?

CARTER: Never.

GROSS: What about from the public or the press - again, the we-didn't-elect-you syndrome? What are you doing there?

CARTER: Well, as I said, I learned very early that I was going to be criticized. Even if I had stayed in the White House and poured tea for four years, I would have been criticized. So why not do - I don't know anybody - I really don't think I know anybody who wouldn't go to the cabinet meetings and sit in and listen if they had an opportunity.

GROSS: You've described yourself as a political partner with your husband, Jimmy Carter. Did you have to work hard to achieve that partnership?

CARTER: It just kind of developed from being in the Navy and learning to take care of things while he was gone and then coming home and working and building the peanut business together and then going to the governor's mansion and doing my thing that just - it just developed a mutual respect for what the other could do.

GROSS: Well, Rosalynn Carter, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CARTER: Good. I enjoyed it.

MOSLEY: Rosalynn Carter from an interview recorded in 1984. She'll be laid to rest tomorrow at her home in Plains, Ga. On the next FRESH AIR, how did evangelicals become Donald Trump's most unflinching advocates? That question plagued Tim Alberta as a journalist and as the son of an evangelical pastor. We'll talk about searching for an answer by traveling to evangelical churches around the country. His new book is about American evangelicals in the age of extremism. I hope you can join us.


MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show, and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Tonya Mosley.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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