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Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter Dead At 96; Remember Rosalynn Carter's Life And Legacy; Israeli Military Released Video; War In Sudan; Rosalynn Carter Dies. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired November 19, 2023 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: Hi, everyone. And thanks so much for joining me. I'm Jessica Dean in for Fredricka Whitfield. And we have some sad news to report to you.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter has passed away at the age of 96. The Carter Center confirming her death just a short time ago.

Here is CNN's Wolf Blitzer with a look back at her life.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: A soft-spoken, small-town girl, Rosalynn Smith Carter became one of America's most charming first ladies. Born in Plains, Georgia, on August 18th, 1927, she was valedictorian of her high school class, and met and married Jimmy Carter when he was in the U.S. Navy.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I love and respect and cherish my wife Rosalynn.

BLITZER: When Mr. Carter's father died in 1953, they moved back to Plains to manage the family's peanut farm.

ROSALYNN CARTER, FORMER FIRST LADY: I didn't want to go home. I was having a good time. I think I had thought I had outgrown Plains, Georgia. It gotten a little too big for my britches. Only pouted for about a year after we got home.

BLITZER: They had four children, three boys, Jack, Chip and Jeff, and later daughter Amy. In 1962, Jimmy Carter entered politics and Rosalynn hit the campaign trail.

R. CARTER: Campaigning was fun. Up to a certain point. I got to travel and see the whole country. Most fun are the people you meet.

BLITZER: She supported her husband's successful bids to become governor of Georgia and later president of the United States.

J. CARTER: So help me, God.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations.

BLITZER: Mrs. Carter was actively involved in her husband's presidency, attending Camp David meetings and cabinet briefings. She was a strong advocate for equal treatment of the mentally ill.

R. CARTER: If they had coverage for their mental illness, then the overall health care costs would come down.

BLITZER: When the Carters left the White House in 1981, she spearheaded a new challenge, Habitat for Humanity, building houses for the poor.

R. CARTER: The whole community has come together to get rid of poverty.

BLITZER: A year later they established the Carter Center, a foundation devoted to promoting human rights, resolving conflicts and eradicating diseases. Mrs. Carter continued to focus on reducing the stigma of mental illness.

R. CARTER: I'm really, really proud. I've been very impressed.

BLITZER: Another focus, caregiving, an issue close to her heart as she told a congressional committee.

R. CARTER: It's been part of my life since I was 12 years old. And my father was diagnosed with leukemia at age 44. We lived in a very small town and all of the neighbors rallied around. But I still vividly remember going to my secret hiding place, the outdoor privy if you can believe that, to cry. It's where I could be alone.

BLITZER: In 1999, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter were honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor for civilians.

J. CARTER: I have visited now more than 150 nations in the world.

BLITZER: Mrs. Carter was often irritated that her husband was praised more for his achievements after his presidency than those of his administration. But she accepted that was politics.

R. CARTER: Doesn't matter what you do, you're going to be criticized for it. And so do what you want to do.

BLITZER: And they were remarkably close first couple. Jimmy Carter used to say Rosalynn was much more than his wife.

J. CARTER: It's always Rosalynn to whom I turn for the primary advice and we make the decisions together. She's the matriarch when our 11 grandchildren or our four children have a problem, they call Rosalynn first. They're going to know that they'll get a sympathetic ear.


BLITZER: She remained by his side occasionally joining with other first families, and later supporting each other in their twilight, she with dementia and Mr. Carter in hospice. And in the 39th president, Rosalynn Carter got more than just a husband.

R. CARTER: My life with Jimmy Carter has been more adventuresome than I ever dreamed it would be.


DEAN: Rosalynn Carter dead at 96. Quite an extraordinary life.

We are told that President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are aware of her passing. They are currently with troops in Norfolk, Virginia. And we're also told that the first lady just came out and asked attendees there as she's speaking to keep the Carter family in your prayers is what she said. So we'll keep an eye on what the current first family is doing right now.

In the meantime, let's bring in CNN's Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, when you think about first ladies, and you think about the modern, you know, kind of -- calling it the modern-day first lady but the ones that have been in office over the last several terms, Rosalynn Carter really set the standard and really made the mold for this modern Office of the First Lady of the United States.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: She definitely did, Jessica. And in fact her push for this was the recognition of the first lady as a federal position in the government. She would have an office in the East Wing and would have a staff. She was the first lady who formally asked Congress for that. So she definitely modernized the role of the first lady.

She of course championed issues that were near and dear to her, mental illness. She spoke about it out loud. And she also, as Wolf's report there was just saying, she was an essential figure in her husband's administration. I mean, think about a first lady attending a National Security Council meeting. Think about a first lady attending a cabinet meeting. She did that with a regularity.

And I recall being at the Carter Center over the years and looking at the exhibits and it is indeed as they were essentially co-presidents. Obviously the president had the final word here, but she was the political one. And reading back and studying about her life, she was the driving political force of this and she made no apologies for that. So it's almost unthinkable in today's world that first lady could be that forward, could be that political.

But she in fact that was her life blood and she was a shy young girl. But she overcame that and certainly was essential to him becoming governor and then president. They of course were both from Plains, Georgia. He knew her since they were 3 years old. So really an extraordinary, extraordinary life. But there's question that she did modernize the role of first lady.

DEAN: It is truly incredible. And to think she was doing all of this, you know, decades ago is really remarkable. And I want to ask you, too, because you've covered presidents and first ladies through various administrations. And they really, the Carters, after they left office, really chartered a new path for what a post-presidential life could be on the global front, domestically, their work across the world, but then also Habitat for Humanity here in the United States. They really put together this kind of new life for themselves that was unique at the time.

ZELENY: It absolutely was unique. I mean, they returned to Plains, Georgia, but they had so much work to do. And she has written about at the time how she was angry, they were angry at the defeat of their one-term presidency, that they had so much more to contribute. But over time that's exactly what they did so from their home in Plains, their very modest home in Plains, they traveled the world and solved world problems.

From water issues in Africa to hunger issues, obviously housing issues with the Habitat for Humanity. Now really up until recently, still building houses. So it was an extraordinary and long chapter of their public lives. Their elected life was actually very brief. But the post-presidency really saw nearly a half century of work around the globe. And if you visit the Carter Center and if you study the work that they did, it really is unlike any other presidency.

They did not go off to give speeches. They did not do movies. They did not have a celebrity role. They had a very workman-like role. And thinking back to something that the former president has said, he described her once as, quote, "an almost equal extension of myself." So they really were just a package deal if you will in all the good ways.


And married 77 years and just really, really extraordinary. So a very sad day no question. But certainly a moment to celebrate her incredible contributions.

DEAN: Right. And really the lasting mark that she's left. And you note that he talked about that, he said in his statement today, he called her my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. So really, you know, solidifying her role in what he accomplished both publicly and in the White House, but also in their personal life and beyond when they moved back to Plains, Georgia, for the life that they created afterward.

ZELENY: Without a question. And it was -- and just reading back again about her life, she was never viewed as having political ambitions of her own. It was of course a very different time. So that was not that controversial of a position for her to be so involved in the president's day to day meetings and so involved in his agenda and administration because she was not seen as being ambitious in her own rights.

Of course there were many similarities between her and then Hillary Rodham Clinton, native Arkansan like you, Jessica, and she of course was viewed in a more ambitious way. So just if you look at the passage of time, Rosalynn Carter was much more involved in President Carter's administration day to day than Hillary Clinton was in Bill Clinton's. But certainly they were viewed very, very, very differently. DEAN: Yes. There's no doubt about that. All right, Jeff Zeleny, thank

you so much for all those reflections and context there. It's so important as we really mark this remarkable life of Rosalynn Carter.

I want to go now to Rafael Romo who is live at the Carter Center in Atlanta. And the Carter Center statement includes comments from President Jimmy Carter. We've noted some of them but tell us more about what you're hearing.

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jessica. We were here on Friday when the Carter Center announced for the very first time that the former first lady was going to start receiving hospice care at home in Plains, Georgia. And at the time many people across America, the Carter family and many people across the world frankly were hoping that it was going to be a case where health professionals were going to be treating the symptoms of dementia.

Many of our viewers know because we have reported it that she was diagnosed with dementia back in May. She was 96 years old. The former president Jimmy Carter is 99 years old. He was put in home hospice care back in February. So everybody was hoping and expecting that it would be a case where she was going to be just made comfortable, treat the symptoms of dementia. But those hopes vanished not too long ago when the Carter Center here announced that former First Lady Rosalynn Carter had died at the age of 96.

And she is being described, Jessica, by the Carter Center as a passionate champion of mental health, caregiving and women's rights. There's also as you mentioned before a statement from the former president himself saying that Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. He also said that she gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.

And it is just amazing to remember, Jessica, that not too long ago, just before the former president's birthday in October, the couple visited a local festival in Plains, Georgia. It was a surprise visit. Nobody was expecting that, given the state of health that they're both in, but they managed to do that. It was very significant for people who attended there.

And also just to think about the role that she played not only here in the United States but around the world. Myself having travelled to different parts of the world to cover news especially in places like Latin America where she is remembered equally fondly with former President Carter as a champion for democracy, helping people there establish very trustworthy institution advancing the cause of democracy there as well. So she will be remembered by many people, like I said before, not only here in the United States but also around the world -- Jessica.

DEAN: Yes. Rafael Romo for us at the Carter Center. Thank you so much for that reporting.

And joining us now is Randall Balmer, he's a CNN contributor and author of a biography of Jimmy Carter's religious life. And of course Randall is not there unfortunately. But we're going to try to get him back. In the meantime, let's squeeze in a break.


And we will have more on the extraordinary life of Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady, who passed today at the age of 96.


DEAN: We continue to follow breaking news this afternoon. Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter has passed away at the age of 96. And joining me now is presidential historian Julian Zelizer, Bill Nigut, the co-host for "Politically Georgia" for the "Atlanta Journal Constitution" newspaper and WABE Radio, and Ron Brownstein who's a CNN senior political analyst and senior editor for "The Atlantic."

Thank you all for joining me. And to talk about this incredible life of Rosalynn Carter.

Ron, let's just start with you.


When you look back at her time as first lady, and the advocacy she did on the issue of mental health, and how ahead of its time it was, she was kind of ahead of her time on a lot of things when she was first lady, but that particular issue, testifying before Congress, talking about something that even today still struggles with some stigma around it, what kind of impact did she leave as a first lady?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Well, first of all, condolences to the family and all of those who admired her. When I first arrived in Washington, it was the final year and a half or so of the Carter presidency. And you know, she really broke the mold that had developed in this country. Julian can talk about first ladies. Really after Eleanor Roosevelt, we had decades in which first ladies were mostly out of the public eye or at most involved in very ceremonial causes.

And she was someone who, you know, long before Hillary Clinton, long before Michelle Obama, who was seen as someone with her sleeves rolled up, engaged in many of the same political and diplomatic in many cases worked as her husband. And as you point out, identifying with this cause which had even more stigma than now was really a reflection of her character and her strength when there was something that mattered to her, she was not at all deterred by what conventional precedent had been and I think she was a very good example of that.

DEAN: Yes, for sure. And Julian, Ron mentioned that you could talk about this, and I do think it would be great if you could help people understand kind of the role of the first lady and what we had seen in the leadup to when Rosalynn Carter took that office and then how it changed afterwards. Just helping give people some context to her time there.

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: She is a really important figure in elevating what the role was. And so, yes, you had Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s who was very visible, prominent, and involved. But then you had a real quiet period in terms of a first lady being so active. She was active as an adviser to her husband. She was active on a diplomatic mission to Central and South America where she was meeting with key figures and being part of a process to rebuild relations in the region.

She was important in the campaigns, not only as an adviser but in 1976 as part of the campaign, the Carter family was part of what they sold. And finally she formalizes the office and forever changes it. So I think we don't get to Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama without a lot of the innovations that she put into place.

DEAN: Right. And you just talked about formalizing that office, the first person to ask for staff in the East Wing, it really did change so much.

Let's go to Bill Nigut who followed the Carters -- has followed the Carters since 1983. So you have there in Georgia, a lot -- you know, we've talked a lot about her moment in the White House. But so much -- most of her life was obviously outside of the White House. And it was mostly in Plains, Georgia. What should people know about the person she was, the family that she had, and what meant something to her?

BILL NIGUT, CO-HOST, "POLITICALLY GEORGIA" FOR AJC AND WABE 90.1: Well, Jessica, if you will allow me, I'd like to first make clear that we talked a lot about how Mrs. Carter fought mental illness and how it needed to be treated. She was a lifelong fighter for better services. And one of the things that she cared about most was having insurers provide the same coverage for people with mental illnesses and addiction that they gave to other health problems.

And she held a series of mental health symposiums at the Carter Center. And in one of them in 2013, Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius in fact said that the federal government was establishing just that new rule. That people with mental illnesses deserve the same coverage from their insurers as people with, say, cancer or other diseases. And Mrs. Carter believed that that rule would help destigmatize people with mental illnesses.

Now that unfortunately hasn't really come to pass. And right here in Georgia, the state has been struggling to improve its mental health services, it has been one of the worst in the country in providing help for people who need it. They're getting better here in Georgia, but Mrs. Carter had some substantive successes that I thought were really important to point out in this conversation.

DEAN: And I want to bring in Randall Balmer. He's a CNN contributor and author or a biography of Jimmy Carter's religious life. Randall is joining from the phone.


And Randall, their faith and their connection to God played a huge role in their life. They continued to teach Sunday school, very famously, in Plains, Georgia. What role did all of that play in Rosalynn Carter's life? RANDALL BALMER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it was central to her life,

her identity. We probably should point out that when they got married 70 some years ago, it was probably considered a mixed marriage in Plains, Georgia, because Rosalynn Carter was a Methodist and Jimmy Carter of course was a Southern Baptist. But there's no question that their faith was very important to them and certainly with Mr. Carter and his administration but also the things that the two of them did once they left the White House.

DEAN: Right. And you've written of course on the former president. What do you think as someone who has studied him for so long and in such depth, the two of them were so very connected.

BALMER: They were.

DEAN: What do you think is going through his mind now that he is without Rosalynn for the first time in many, many, many years?

BALMER: I got the impression, very strong impression, the last time I spoke with Mr. Carter that the only person he fully trusted was Rosalynn Carter, his wife. That is to say he certainly had advisers around him in the White House and throughout his political career, the so-called Georgia mafia. But as they died, I think more and more he relied on Rosalynn as being his real rock, his real strength. And I have no doubt that he is devastated as we speak.

DEAN: Such a loss. And Ron, I want to go back to you as well to kind of give us as someone who I know has focused on various researching various decades including the '60s and the '70s and their impact on America and its politics, its culture. What did the Carters mean, their kind of moment in American history? What do you take away from it?

BROWNSTEIN: Really great question. Jimmy Carter in many ways was a symbol of reconciliation after the culture wars of the 1960s ranging from, you know, kind of rock 'n roll, you know, where he embraced Bob Dylan and the Allmand Brothers, to racial reconciliation after running against Lester Maddox. I believe his governor's race was against Lester Maddox in the south.

And, you know, they kind of presented themselves as figures of tradition who nonetheless accepted and did not fight against the way society had changed in the '60s and early '70s in the same that Nixon was seen as resisting those cultural changes. And they were kind of a hopeful turning of the page I think in the way that they kind of blended what America had been with what America was becoming.

And in many ways, you know, that is still the fight we are having between the forces that -- the portions of society that are comfortable the way we are changing and those that are not. And I think the Carters, although he certainly had his difficulties as president, of course as a one-term presidents in many ways were an important cultural symbol. It was going to be all right. The country was not going to tear apart at the seams and that we could hold on to what we had been while making room for what we were becoming.

DEAN: Wow. Yes. All right. Ron, and Bill, and Randall, and Julian, thank you all so much.

Stay with us. We're going to have much more on the life of Rosalynn Carter in just a moment. We'll be right back.



DEAN: New today, Israel defense forces just released new videos of what it says is a tunnel shaft on the grounds of Al-Shifa Hospital, which has become a focal point in Israel's war on Hamas.

Israel has long said Hamas uses that hospital to cover up what it says is an extensive terror network underground. It's something Hamas and hospital officials deny.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is live in Tel Aviv tonight. And, Oren, you actually entered Gaza with the Israeli defense forces last night, to see that tunnel shaft for yourself.

And I just want to point out, CNN reported from Gaza under IDF escort at all times. And as a condition for journalists to join that imbed, media outlets had to submit footage filmed in Gaza to the Israeli military for review, but that CNN has retained editorial control over the final report. So, knowing that, Oren, tell us what you saw.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, we spent about six hours inside of Gaza, all of them at night. We entered and crossed the border fence at 9:00 in the evening. We didn't come out again until 3:00 in the morning.

The focus of this journey was the Al-Shifa Hospital complex. We went to see the newly exposed tunnel shaft to find out, first, what we could see with our own eyes. How deep did it go? What could we see inside? If we could see anything underground. And, second, what is under there and what has the IDF been able to establish?

Take a look at this journey.


(voice-over): We go in under cover of darkness. As we cross the border fence, it's lights out across the Gaza strip. Escorted by a tank, we switch into an armored personnel carrier for the final stretch. Even through a night vision screen, you can see the magnitude of the destruction on the streets of Gaza City.

We offload at the Al-Shifa Hospital, pick our way along hidden synastry, or what's left of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, watch your feet (ph). Let's go.

LIEBERMANN: We have to keep our lights off most of the time or risk exposing our position. CNN reported from Gaza under Israel defense forces escort at all times. As a condition for journalists to join the embed with the IDF, media outlets must submit footage filmed in Gaza to the Israeli military sensors for review.


LIEBERMANN: Now, at the hospital compound, we wait inside a structure to make sure the area is secure, before moving the short distance to the exposed tunnel shaft.

(on camera): And here is the entrance. You can see what looks like a ladder accessing to it. And as I step over here, it's very difficult to see how far down it goes. But it looks like there is almost a central shaft for a staircase. And then, it -- the shaft that it disappears then down into the darkness.

(voice-over): We move around the opening for a better look at the shaft, itself. What's clear from here, is this is meant to go deep underground.

(on camera): Which direction does the tunnel go?

MAJOR NIR DINAR, SPOKESPERSON, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES: We assume that the tunnels goes out. And it has another corridor to this way.

LIEBERMANN: Towards the hospital.

DINAR: Towards the hospital, meaning it connects the hospital to outside. Which implies with the way that Hamas is working, Hamas is going out somewhere, shooted at our (ph) forces, and going back inside to a safe place.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): We weren't allowed to enter the shaft, but the Israeli military sent special gear down to see where this leads. Inside, the video shows a spiral staircase. And as the camera orients itself, it moves forward into a tunnel. The tunnel makes a sharp left turn. And at the end of another path with concrete walls and an arched concrete top, a metal door they say they have not yet opened, because they fear it is booby-trapped.

IDF spokesman, Admiral Daniel Hagari, says some of the Israeli hostages taken on October seventh were also brought through the hospital. He says body of Noah Martziano (ph) was discovered 50 meters from the compound.

ADMIRAL DANIEL HAGARI, SPOKESPERSON, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES: We have evidence that they were holding hostages in Rantisi, but also we have evidence that they were bringing them to Shifa Hospital. We're still looking for the places they might have held them.

LIEBERMANN: This is not proof of a Hamas command center or headquarters underneath the hospital, but Israel continues trying to build its case that Hamas uses the sanctuary of the hospital for cover which Hamas and hospital officials have denied.

The IDF's ability to continue its operation in Gaza and the credibility of Israel are at stake here, as the number killed in the fighting surpasses 12,000, according to the Hamas run industry of health. The IDF says one of its missions is to destroy Hamas. But with international criticism mounting, Israel has to show the terror organization is using Gaza civilians and infrastructure as cover to justify an ongoing war.


(live): And the IDF says the tunnel shaft goes about 10 meters, so that's about 30 or 33 feet. And then, continues 55 meters, so more than 150 feet, until it reaches that metal door.

Of course, Jessica, a key question, what's on the other side and how big is this network of tunnels under the hospital area?

DEAN: No doubt about it. More to come on that. Oren Liebermann in Tel Aviv for us. Thanks so much for that reporting.

Next, CNN's Nima Elbagir take as precarious journey home to Sudan, months after a horrific war tore the country apart. A preview of her powerful report for the whole story, that's next.



DEAN: It has been very difficult to report on Sudan's ongoing brutal war. Few western journalists have been allowed in, since the war broke out seven months ago, between the Sudanese army and the Paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

But Nima Elbagir and her team managed to travel from South Sudan to the Republic of Sudan on a cross-country journey. Here is a look at that story.


NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): As the sunsets, our situation becomes more precarious.

(on camera): We've just been held at every -- almost every single checkpoint, despite all the assurances we were given. It's now 10:00 at night, and we're still an hour and a half before our destination. Every moment that we are delayed, it gets more and more dangerous.

(voice-over): And delayed again and again and again. Luckily, we managed to get in touch with a distant cousin of my fathers, who allows us to bed down in her new not yet furnished home. The team is exhausted. We need to get some sleep.


DEAN: CNN Chief International Investigative Correspondent Nima Elbagir is joining me now. Nima, it's great to see you here. And seven months into this conflict, it has not received the attention from the world that it should. How much does access to that region play into that? We just saw you struggling to get in there. ELBAGIR (live): Access plays a huge part. But what we are also seeing

from bad actors (ph) across the conflicts that we cover is that the communications network is usually the first thing that they target. And we're seeing this in Sudan, that it's very difficult to call in. It's very difficult to get any kind of reliable information. And it's incredibly dangerous.

And it's reaching a point where, in Sudan especially, as we're hearing and investigating these reports, that the violence that is being meeted out there really has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Refugees are telling us, when they cross over to a safe haven, that they are being stopped from leaving.

It is so incredibly difficult, which is why the people that we spoke to for this documentary -- honestly, Jessica, I really can't imagine what it feels like to take that kind of a risk. To be willing to put yourself in danger, after everything that they have been through, because they want the world to know what's happening. They wanted to take this opportunity, Jessica.

DEAN: It is so brave and incredible that they are willing to do that.


DEAN: I also just want to ask you, on a personal note, how difficult or was it difficult to balance being a journalist with just how close this hits for you? You received threats. You had to evacuate your family. This is serious stuff.

ELBAGIR: You know, I think you probably feel the same. You know, there's a place in your head that you go to that's the kind of -- the autopilot that's just the years of the practice and the doing the job.

But I have to admit, there would be moments when I would be pulled out of that. Because one day, we were crossing back to where we were staying in Port Sudan, and someone shouted out of a window. And it was, actually, one of my mom's cousins, and he wanted to tell me that another relative had passed away.

So, there were these horrible moments, where, you know, I was kind of pulled out of the distance that I always try and maintain to cover these stories.

But, at the same time, I think it's an important thing for us, as journalists, to sometimes have that experience. To know what people risk. To know what people go through to talk to us. To know what it's like to see the places that you love and know destroyed.

I wouldn't recommend it. But I think it -- I hope that it comes across to the audience in the way that we told the story.

DEAN: Yes. And that you can bring that humanity to it. It's so important and we will all be watching. Thank you so much. And be sure to tune in. An all-new episode of "THE WHOLE STORY" with Anderson Cooper. It's one whole hour, one whole story. And that's the story tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, only on CNN. And stay with us. As we've been discussing this hour, former first

lady, Rosalynn Carter, has died at her home in Plains, Georgia, this afternoon. She was 96.

Just minutes ago, former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, issued a statement. It read, in part, quote, "We are saddened by the passing of Rosalynn Carter. She leaves behind an important legacy in her work to destigmatize mental health. And we join fellow citizens in sending our condolences to the president -- to President Carter and their family."

We'll be right back.




JILL BIDEN, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: I have to lead this off with a sad announcement. Former first lady, Rosalynn Carter, has just passed. And she was well-known for her efforts on mental health and caregiving and women's rights. So, I hope that, during the holidays, you'll consider saying your -- include the Carter family in your prayers.


DEAN: And that was first lady, Jill Biden, in Norfolk, Virginia, with the president just a few moments ago, honoring former first lady, Rosalynn Carter, who passed away earlier today at the age of 96.

And Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter recently celebrated 77 years of marriage together. CNN's Randi Kaye has more on their love and their life.


JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I knew that she was -- she was quiet. She was extremely intelligent. And she was very timid, by the way, beautiful, and there was just something about her that was --


JIMMY CARTER: -- irresistible. I can't help it.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jimmy Carter telling Oprah why he fell in love with his wife, Rosalynn. The Carters grew up together in Plains, Georgia, before tying the knot in 1946. Theirs is the longest marriage in the history of U.S. presidents. They celebrated 77 years together this year. As he tells it, he took Rosalynn to a movie on their first date and was smitten.

JIMMY CARTER: The next morning, my mother asked, what did I do? And I knew I had a family reunion. And I said, well, I had a date. She said, who'd you go with? I said, Rosalynn Smith. She said, what did you think of Rosalynn? I said, she's the one I'm going to marry.

KAYE: They married after he graduated the U.S. Naval Academy. He was 21. She was 18. Their decades-long marriage has had its challenges, but shared interests seem to be the glue. Over the years, they skied, fly fished and bird watched, and read the bible together every night. Both volunteered with Habitat for Humanity.

ROSALYNN CARTER, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm going to talk a little bit about Jim, and he's not going to like it. There has never been any kind of damage at all to Jimmy Carter's heart. I knew he had a good heart.

KAYE: On the campaign trail, Jimmy Carter called his wife his secret weapon. Rosalynn visited more than 40 states during the 1976 presidential campaign. After her husband became president in 1977 --

JIMMY CARTER: I, Jimmy Carter, do solemnly swear --

KAYE: -- the Carters teamed up in the White House. When he lost his bid for re-election, they moved back to their same home in plains, Georgia. In this interview, Barbara Walters wanted all the details.

BARBARA WALTERS, BROADCAST JOURNALIST: I don't know how to ask this, so I'll just ask it.


WALTERS: But do you sleep in the double bed or twin bed?

JIMMY CARTER: Double bed. Always have. Sometimes we sleep in the same bed, but it's more comfortable having a double bed.

KAYE: Rosalynn has been by his side through it all. Skin cancer that spread to his brain in 2015. A mass on his liver. A broken hip. Jimmy Carter has credited his loving marriage for the reason he's otherwise been in good health.


KAYE: The Carters had certainly slowed down with age but have still been enjoying a full life with four children, 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

According to "The Washington Post," the couple had a Saturday night routine of walking a half mile to a friend's home for dinner and a single glass of chardonnay. They also managed to figure out what else it takes to keep their love alive.

JIMMY CARTER: First of all, we give each other plenty of space to do our own thing.

KAYE: And their love only seems to have grown stronger. Jimmy Carter has said marrying Rosalynn was the pinnacle of his life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you look back, what are you most proud of? JIMMY CARTER: In my entire life experience, I would say it was

marrying my wife, Rosalynn. She's been a very profound, beneficial factor in my entire existence and still is.


DEAN: Our thanks to CNN's Randi Kaye for that report.

And I want to thank you so much for joining me today. I'm Jessica Dean in for Fredricka Whitfield. CNN NEWSROOM continues with Paula Reid after a quick break.