By Bill Barrow
Rosalynn Carter was being memorialized Tuesday with classical music and beloved hymns, some of her favorite Biblical passages, and a rare gathering of all living U.S. first ladies and multiple presidents, including her 99-year-old husband Jimmy Carter in the front row.
The tribute service at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta marked the second day of a three-day schedule of public events celebrating the former first lady and global humanitarian who died Nov. 19 at home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96. Tributes began Monday in the Carters’ native Sumter County and continued in Atlanta.
“My mother was the glue that held our family together through the ups and downs and thicks and thins of our family’s politics," Chip Carter, her son, said as the service began.
President Jimmy Carter, right, and his wife, first lady Rosalynn Carter, lead their guests in dancing at the annual Congressional Christmas Ball, Dec. 13, 1978, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz, File)
The former president, who is 10 months into home hospice care and hadn't been seen in public since September, watched from his wheelchair, reclined a bit with his legs up and covered by a blanket, with his daughter Amy holding his hand.
He sat flanked by his other three children as well — Jeff to his left, Chip and Jack to his right.
The former president stayed Monday night at The Carter Center, CEO Paige Alexander said, steps from where the former first lady lay in repose.
“He never wants to be very far from her,” she said. “He had a good night. He’s rested.”
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, their longtime friends, were among the dignitaries. Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with former first ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, paid their respects, as did Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff. Georgia's U.S. senators and Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife Marty Kemp joined more than 1,000 people in the sanctuary. Former Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush were invited but will not attend.
President Joe Biden, left, first lady Jill Biden, for President Bill Clinton and former first lady Hillary Clinton, right, arrive to attend a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The service reflected Rosalynn Carter’s status as a global figure while emphasizing her more private profile as a family matriarch who preferred a simple life and held a deep religious faith.
The pews filled with political power players, but front and center were her children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren — all surrounding Jimmy Carter, who grieved not as a former president, but as her 99-year-old partner of 77 years.
The opening music was a medley of hymns, each of them Protestant standards praising Jesus Christ, followed by “America the Beautiful.”
The speakers came from many chapters of her long life: James Earl “Chip” Carter III as the son who remembers his once-shy mother coming into her own in business and politics; Judy Woodruff as the journalist who covered the Carter presidential campaign and White House, Kathryn Cade as the White House aide who stayed on as a close adviser as Rosalynn Carter helped build The Carter Center and its global reach; grandson and Carter Center chairman Jason Carter to illustrate both her personal and humanitarian legacy; and Rev. Tony Snowden, the Carters’ personal pastor who knew her as his faithful parishioner.
Whether Jimmy Carter would participate was a day-by-day question. It was his first public appearance since September, when he and Rosalynn Carter rode together in the Plains Peanut Festival parade, visible only through open windows in a Secret Service vehicle. Jimmy Carter, who was with his wife during her final hours, did not appear publicly during any part of a public motorcade through and wreath-laying ceremony Monday at Rosalynn Carter’s alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus.
Alexander said the trip to Atlanta was “hard” for the former president but “this is her last trip up and it’s probably his, too. … He’s determined.”
In this Sept. 28, 2009, file photo former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn look at a new interactive exhibit at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
The Carters married in 1946 and became the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history, with 77 years together. Jimmy Carter is the longest-lived president; Rosalynn Carter was the second-longest-lived first lady, trailing only Bess Truman, who died at 97.
Praised for a half-century of advocacy for better mental health care in America and reducing stigmas attached to mental illness, Rosalynn Carter brought attention to the tens of millions of people who work as unpaid caregivers in U.S. households, and was acclaimed for how integral she was to her husband’s political rise and in his terms as Georgia's governor and the 39th president.
Jason Carter, himself a former state senator and one-time Democratic nominee for governor, called his grandmother “the best politician in the family,” a distinction Jimmy Carter never disputed.
“My wife is much more political,” the former president told The Associated Press in 2021.
A guest looks at the program before a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool)
Indeed, the Carters, perhaps much more because of him than her, never settled comfortably into Washington power circles, even after winning the White House. They were later on the periphery of the unofficial “Presidents Club” that has made friends out of former White House occupants who once operated as rivals and reconvenes publicly — in whole or in part — for inaugurations and funerals.
Biden, who plans to eulogize Jimmy Carter at his state funeral when the time comes, is indisputably the friendliest ally Carter has had in the Oval Office since leaving Washington in 1981.
Rosalynn Carter’s funeral will take place Wednesday in Plains, with an invitation-only service at Maranatha Baptist Church, where the Carters have been members since returning to Georgia after his presidency. She will be buried after a private graveside service on a plot the couple will share, visible from the front porch of the home they built before Jimmy Carter’s first political campaign in 1962.