Their relationship has been a constant through wins and losses, reinvention and raising a family. At 96 and 93, they have come to rely on their bond more now than ever.
July 4, 2021
PLAINS, Ga. — Jimmy Carter, a midshipman in the U.S. Naval Academy, wanted to marry Rosalynn Smith, a girl he met on the day she was born and knew mostly as his sister Ruth’s best friend until they went on a double date, riding to the movies together squeezed in the rumble seat of an old Ford.
She said no.
Of course, he persisted. And on a recent morning, the pair of them — the former president and first lady, now known as Mrs. Carter — were still side by side, his hand resting on top of hers, explaining that the rejection had merely been a hiccup before a marriage that is about to reach its 75th anniversary.
“After a while, I changed my mind,” said Mrs. Carter, 93, noting that she hesitated because of a request by her father on his death bed that she finish college.
“After a long while,” Mr. Carter, 96, piped up.
Their partnership has withstood the glare of political campaigns and the strains of raising a family, triumphs that catapulted them to international prominence and a defeat that sent them home to Georgia as political outcasts with a faltering family business. As their world inevitably narrows in the dusk of life, the couple has come to rely on their bond even more.
“We’ve just grown closer and closer together,” Mr. Carter said.
But after riding out the coronavirus pandemic in the modest ranch-style home in Plains they built in 1961, the Carters are eager to step out. The Bidens dropped by in April for a visit. Mrs. Carter said she looked forward to seeing a great-granddaughter, now 3, she had not met yet. And next weekend, they’ll go down the street to Plains High School, where a few hundred relatives and friends will gather to celebrate their anniversary, which is on Wednesday. (“I think we have too many people coming,” Mr. Carter said.)
The occasion has nudged the couple to reminisce on a marriage that has come to be defined by its longevity, sure, but also by the closeness of the two people in it. “We share everything,” he said.
They had some advice on how to sustain a relationship: They never go to bed angry. They found shared interests and hobbies, like skiing, bird watching and fly fishing. But they also had the good fortune of enjoying each other’s company.
Seventy-five years is a long time. It’s about three years shy of the life expectancy of the average American. There are marriages that last longer; a couple in Nebraska celebrated their 85th anniversary last year. (“Everybody said it would never last,” one spouse told a television station in Omaha.)
Still, in terms of presidential marriages, reaching three-quarters of a century is a singular distinction. Gerald Ford, John Adams, Harry S. Truman, Richard M. Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and John Quincy Adams had marriages that eclipsed 50 years.
President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, were the only other first couple to reach seven decades. He was 17 and she was 16 when they met at a Christmas dance in Greenwich, Conn. Mrs. Bush often said he was the only boy she’d ever kissed. They had been married for 73 years when Mrs. Bush died in 2018. Mr. Bush died less than eight months later.
“I was very happy on that day in 1945,” Mr. Bush wrote in a letter for their anniversary in 1994, “but I’m even happier today. You have given me joy that few men know.” He added, “I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.”
The Carters have been a constant in each other’s lives virtually from the beginning. When he was 3, his mother took him to see the neighbor’s new baby, Rosalynn.
When she was older, Mrs. Carter said, she would visit Ruth Carter, who kept a photograph of her brother on her bedroom wall. “I fell in love with that picture,” she said.
“Mother always said I married him because of his uniform,” Mrs. Carter said. “You know that?”
“That’s what I thought, too,” Mr. Carter said. “It was my uniform.”
He kept writing and calling after she declined his first proposal. She was dating men she went to school with at a junior college in Americus, Ga. “I was distressed,” he later wrote. But she ultimately came around. They married soon after she graduated, keeping her promise to her father.
The relationship — a sailor wed to his sweetheart in rural Georgia in 1946 — reflected, in many ways, the time and place of its origin. One of his biggest regrets, he said, was making consequential family decisions early in their marriage without consulting her.
She was furious when he announced that he was leaving the Navy and returning the family to Plains. She had savored the life of a Navy wife. “I had been self-sufficient and independent from my mother and Jimmy’s mother,” she recalled. “And I knew that if I went home, I was going to have to come back to them.”
She seethed on the drive back to Georgia. “She avoided talking to me as much as possible and would ask our oldest son, ‘Jack, tell your father we need to stop at a restroom,’” Mr. Carter wrote in “A Full Life,” the memoir he published when he was 90.
But over the years — with trial and error, as well as their shared ambition — it evolved into a partnership that challenged boundaries imposed by gender norms. He relied on her political instincts on the campaign trail. When he was in the White House, they’d have weekly policy lunches and she attended cabinet meetings. She also had a major hand in running the Carter family’s peanut warehouse business when they first returned to Plains, and then again later on, after leaving the White House and discovering the business was $1 million in debt.
The Carters’ life in Plains, a tiny town in the Georgia farm country, in some ways has been a surreal existence, as the town became encased in amber, its identity intertwined with that of the Carters, after they returned from Washington. Plains High School is now a museum to the Carters’ life and work. His brother Billy’s service station is a museum, too. Their small brick home on Woodland Drive has been fortified by the Secret Service with guard booths and high fencing, making for a conspicuous presence on Main Street.
They lacked the level of wealth that other presidents accrued after leaving office. They had made money as landowners and from the old family business, and also received the pension paid by the federal government to former presidents, now $221,400 a year.
But their life in Plains has been a comfortable one.
“We are treated here just like we belong here,” Mr. Carter said of his neighbors.
“In Plains,” Mrs. Carter added, “everybody that Jimmy’s not kin to, I’m kin to — that’s just about true. It’s just about home. No matter where we go, I’m always ready to go home.”
As they’ve grown older, the Carters have been known for their endurance.
Mr. Carter survived cancer. In 2019, he had a black eye and needed 14 stitches after a fall, but he still showed up to help build houses in Nashville for Habitat for Humanity. Not long after, he fractured his pelvis. Despite pleas from his family and staff to cancel, he nonetheless perched himself before the congregation at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains for one of the Sunday school classes he taught for years, drawing crowds that traveled there from around the world and lined up before sunrise for a chance to get inside.
But aging is inescapable. He has now handed over Sunday school duties to his niece. Their mobility is limited; Mrs. Carter gets around a bit more easily than he does. But sitting together in their living room as the sunlight flooded through a large front window, the Carters said that their connection to each other had evolved and strengthened.
“I know for my sake,” Mr. Carter said, “it’s been the best thing I’ve ever had happen to me — marrying Rosalynn and living together for so long, growing to know each other more and more intimately every day in married life.”
His hand drifted over to hers.
“I’ve been very happy,” he said, letting out a little laugh, “and I love her more now than I did to begin with — which is saying a lot, because I loved her a lot.”