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CNN Live Event/Special

Awaiting Start Of Rosalynn Carter Memorial Service; Soon: Memorial Service For First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 28, 2023 - 12:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: You are looking live at the white pillars of Glenn Memorial Church in sunny brisk Atlanta, Georgia as America prepares to say goodbye to the Steel Magnolia who forever changed -- what it means to be a first lady.

You're watching live CNN special coverage of celebration of the remarkable life and times of Rosalynn Carter. I'm Jake Tapper in Washington. Soon the ceremony starts to honor the woman who spent almost eight decades at Jimmy Carter side. The numbers of her life are a testament to a marriage that was good and lasting. Four children, 12 grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren and counting.

Born Illinois Rosalynn Smith to an auto mechanic and a dressmaker. She defied early trauma and poverty to walk the halls of power, not just as a bystander, but as a true equal. She was the very model of a modern first lady. Her hand touching every nook of her husband's presidency.

She was the protector of her husband's political brand, the first to take an office in the East Wing. She attended cabinet meetings. She was also her husband's standing on the campaign trail in 1980, when the Iran hostage crisis consumed the nation and the world for 444 days.

And today, the country gets its first glimpse in quite some time at Jimmy Carter. And he will be at Rosalynn side for the last time. The 39th president, as you may recall, entered hospice care earlier this year in February. The funeral will also bring together a roster of American luminaries who are rarely together.

The current president and First Lady Jill and Joe Biden, the current Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, the 42nd President Bill Clinton, and we will also see all the living former first lady's -- former First Lady, Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, former First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Melania Trump.

I want to go straight to Atlanta now at CNN's Eva McKend, who was outside of the Glenn Memorial Church. Eva, what are you learning about today's ceremony as well as how it was planned?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Jake. You know, the most remarkable aspect is that 99-year-old former President Jimmy Carter will be here, though I'm told he is not expected to speak. His grandson Jason telling me that he is physically diminished and he himself is approaching the end of his life, but that powerfully, Jake, he wouldn't have missed this for the world.

We also know many of the things that we'll see here today, Garth Brooks performing, Trisha Yearwood, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. That all of this was by Rosalynn Carter's design that prior to her passing, she really illustrated what she wanted this surface to look alike.

And although there will be many dignitaries here many famous faces, the family tells me that what is most encouraging to them is all of the Georgians that have expressed their support for the family, as the motorcade made that long trip from planes, three hours here to Atlanta, people lined the streets, in support of the Carters and that has really just given them so much strength at this difficult time. Jake?

TAPPER: Eva McKend, you keep us posted as events continue developing out there. Dana -- I'm going to turn to our panel here in studio, Dana. There's obviously going to be a big focus on Rosalynn Carter's legacy, but we also can't just escape she was such a family woman. She was the matriarch of the Carter clan, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and though she was so many things, including a leader in mental health and caregiving. That was the role that she was proudest of the matriarch of the Carter clan.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT & HOST OF INSIDE POLITICS: Yeah. Four children, 22 grandchildren and great grandchildren, a very, very big family that she created as the matriarch. And the things that you just touched on that she dealt with, not just in the White House but in her very long post White House service are directly related to her as experience as a mother and grandmother fighting for mental health, fighting for better caregiving.


Those are all critical, critical, critical parts of her legacy. And as we see later, we can talk later on about how she helped shape decisions that her successors made, many of whom are -- who are going to be there and paying tribute to her today.

TAPPER: There are a lot of people. Jamie Gangel who are going to hear from Amy Carter today for the first time maybe ever, but who remember when she came to Washington in 1977. A little girl with blond hair, who went to public school in D.C. that was another break from D.C. tradition. And I don't think anybody went to public school since then presidential offspring. She was allowed to roller skate in the West Wing portico. They were very unconventional of the Carters.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: There are some wonderful photographs that I remember from real time watching of Amy Carter at a state dinner reading a book. She was invited to these formal occasions, but she brought a book along with her. I think there was a tree house that was there. But she seemed very much the normal child, which I think reflects so much of the Carters. There she is.

One thing that I just want to mention about today, which is, we've spoken so much about how former President Carter has been in hospice care for quite some time now. And I've spoken to close family friends who really underscored that his health is very fragile right now. But they said he was insistent about being here today. It was not sure.

Even last night when he said to the family, he wanted to come in -- they weren't sure, but they said through sheer force of his will, which we know a lot about and determination. He insisted on being here together. And just finally, so many of their friends and family have said the following. You know, they talk about a partnership, but they can't imagine one without the other. This really was a team.

TAPPER: Misty Malarky Ying Yang, that's the name of Amy Carter's cat.


TAPPER: That she brought to the White House with her in 1977. Tim, Rosalynn Carter's Christian faith, such an important part of her life, such an important part of her husband's life. It's going to be very much reflected in the service today.

TIMOTHY NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: But she has long been a Sunday school teacher, like her husband. She has also been the deacon of her church, like her husband. She also participated in the struggle and left their church and plains when their church wouldn't integrate. Mrs. Carter had a tough time in 1980, when the moral majority was supporting president, then candidate Ron Reagan.

And some people began to question her faith because of some of the policies that her husband had stood for. And she couldn't understand how people could doubt her piety. This is a woman who read the Bible, certainly when she was young, she read it every day and probably continued to read it most every day. And so, she was someone who was pained by how politics had begun to shape the way in which we thought about piety and religion in our country.

TAPPER: The activating issue actually for a lot of people in the moral majority was race and integration. They were very opposed to the fact that the Carter IRS was opposing the fact that segregated schools were getting a tax protection.

NAFTALI: And let's just also add as well, ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment. That many Americans who felt that there was a traditional role for a woman and that it was somebody they had grown up with, and they had a hard time and didn't respect people like Rosalyn Carter and Betty Ford before her who said no, it's time for a change.

TAPPER: At least to see all the living former first ladies together today honoring one of their own. There is a special significance to that and something we don't often get to say.

LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR, CNN POLITICAL HISTORIAN: Absolutely not. I mean, they are united by the fact that this is the woman who essentially founded the office of the first lady, but not just the actual physical space, right. She gets money from Congress to do this and gets permission from the executive branch to do this. But also, that she imbibes within it an activism right, an active agenda and says there should be things that the first lady does.


That there should be plans that we should care about things like mental health, the elderly, children, vaccines, the ERA, and says that that is a fundamental part of who this country is and what we want this administration to be about. And so, what's really remarkable here is that every single First Lady has followed that pattern. They've done it in different ways, perhaps, but there's no doubt that they were all inspired by Rosalynn Carter.

TAPPER: And you too, first you, Kate, and then you need to -- how did Rosalynn Carter established the modern first lady position, do you think?

KATE ANDERSEN BROWER, AUTHOR, "FIRST WOMEN": Well, I think if it weren't for her, her husband wouldn't have been elected to the Georgia state senate or it's a Georgia governorship. And I think she would most want to be remembered. And we'd be remiss if we didn't talk about her mental health work.

She is the first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt to address Congress to testify on behalf of a Mental Health Act. And she brought these concerns from the people around the country when she was campaigning to her husband. And so, she saw herself as a conduit for her husband.

And there's a great story where she was campaigning for him in 1966. And she was 4:30 in the morning that tells you something about her commitment, standing outside of a factory. And she said to this very tired woman coming off her shift. She said, I hope you can go home and rest now. And the woman said, actually my daughter is mentally ill.

And she heard this story and that night, Rosalynn Carter stood in line at her husband's rally, and just -- and shook his hand and he was surprised to see her, and he said, I'd like to talk to you about mental health. And you need to take this up as an issue. And so that is what she would most want us to be talking about.

TAPPER: And then either, you've met her several times.

ANITA MCBRIDE, DIRECTOR, FIRST LADIES INITIATIVE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I have, I have and actually I do respond to the fact that her activism at the period of time that she was first lady was really a juxtapose against a period of time in our country where women's roles were being elevated. And in fact, her fight for the ERA was when it failed -- when the ratification failed of those final four states.

Ironically, women's groups and feminist groups blamed Jimmy Carter for putting his wife front and center and trying to push for the ERA. So, there was this balance of her using her podium, which she used very effectively as an activist, first lady in the period of time that she served against a backdrop of a country that was reckoning with the role of women because first ladies before her were very active. Lady Bird Johnson was very active. Eleanor Roosevelt was very active. I mean, really set the standard.

But the office of the first lady, we absolutely have her to thank for formalizing it, putting a structure around it. I was a direct recipient of that being a chief of staff to a first lady. And really credit Mrs. Carter for fighting for that even while her husband when he ran for president, ran on part of a platform of cutting the White House staff, but she succeeded in banding it.

TAPPER: With CNN in Atlanta some motorcades beginning to arrive. We think this is President Biden. We believe that's him, entering the grounds. We're going to squeeze in a quick break here. Coming up, I'm going to talk to Melinda French Gates about her special friendship with Rosalynn Carter. We're standing by for a tribute service for the former first lady to begin. Stick with us. We'll be working on.




TAPPER: And welcome back to CNN's special coverage honoring the incredible life and legacy of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. You're looking at live pictures of Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta where a tribute service for the former first lady will take place.

Just moments from now we saw former President Bill Clinton arriving just moments ago. CNN's MJ Lee is at the White House for us. And MJ, President Biden has had an enduring friendship with the Carters that has spanned decades. He was elected to the Senate before Jimmy Carter was even elected president.

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right. And Jake, obviously no surprise at all, that it was personally important to both the president and the first lady to attend this service today, even though the president will not be speaking at today's service. This was about showing respect and support to the entire Carter family, including of course, the former President Jimmy Carter.

And what I'm told is that in recent months, President Biden and his top advisers have really been in close touch with members of the Carter family, including a few days before Rosalynn Carter. Carter's passing, the president spoke with her grandson. And then on the day of her passing two, he was in touch with one of the family's spokespeople.

And what's interesting, Jake, is that, even though we're all pretty familiar with the president, saying in public, you know, I was the first senator to endorse Jimmy Carter's presidential bid in 1976. It's also clear that the relationship between the Biden's and the Carter has really evolved after the Biden's came back to the White House in 2021.

You know, the president talks about how he very much values the advice that you can get from a former president. Of course, only a few men have had that job who are still living and the night before the Biden's inauguration, I'm told he spoke with Jimmy Carter who couldn't attend the inauguration.


They talked about setting up the visit and the Biden's ended up visiting the Carters in Georgia in the spring of 2021 to mark the president's 100th day in presidency. So, this is a relationship that's heavy on personal history but also on just the historic symbolism as well.

TAPPER: Anita at the White House. Thank you. Joining us now to discuss the philanthropist Melinda French Gates, who was a friend of Rosalynn Carter. Thank you so much for joining us. I know you've called Rosalynn Carter, one of your heroes. How did she inspire you and your own philanthropic work?

MELINDA FRENCH GATES, PHILANTHROPIST AND GLOBAL ADVOCATE FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS: Thanks for having me, Jake. Let me just first say condolences to her family because this is just a huge loss. And she was just an absolute trailblazer. And she -- her courage, for me stands out in this work to talk about mental health. Even today, there's still stigma around mental health.

But Rosalynn knew it was important to talk about these issues, to talk about caregiving, but to get changes, policy changes that would affect communities and families. Her courage to speak out early and often and do the right thing. That is a lasting legacy that all of us can follow.

TAPPER: No. It's tough to even explain to people how being the first lady of Georgia and making mental health, how courageous that was to make mental health your priority as the first lady of Georgia in 1971, or whenever it was really groundbreaking -- really amazing.

And she didn't just lead on that issue from the first lady's house in Georgia or in Washington, or even through the Carter center. She made significant strides by volunteering with Habitat for humanity and the boys and girls clubs and through her church and her Institute for caregivers. What lessons have you learned from her commitment to service we couldn't even list all the organizations that she found it much less joint.

GATES: What I learned from Rosalynn was that it was not just about the -- what you do, but it's about how you go about it. And what Rosalynn did was she attested and first saw the humanity in the person. And from that she then sprung to what can we do.

So, she volunteered in and out of the hospitals in Georgia and was there on the ground meeting with people and from learning about that and seeing it in her own family, you know, at 12. She lost her father. She'd caregiving to him to leukemia, her mother's grieving, and she cares for her three younger siblings at age 12.

And so, she knew that at some point, we all will not only be caregivers, but will become caregivers. She also saw mental health when she was working in this hospital and the profound problems that it created for the person and the family. So, from that, after seeing the humanity, she then said, OK, I'm going to push for a policy change.

In1980 a huge governmental policy change that affected mental health and communities and funded it. She then said later, when she was out, President Carter was out of office, she said, OK, through the Rosalynn Carter Institute. I'm going to train journalists and train the American people on how to speak about mental health. She called people out and said we can't talk about these people is inmates. These are people who have mental health challenges. That was groundbreaking. That was, you know, a half a century ago. Her courage was something.

TAPPER: This is a photo we're going to show right now that you posted of yourself with the Carters What was she like behind closed doors and what did the two of you talk about?

GATES: This is at their home, actually in Plains, Georgia, we get to visit them. And she still like to speak her mind and so much so that it was cute. Jimmy Carter -- President Carter would say to her, OK, Rosalynn, I hear you together -- to let him talk sometimes.

But the thing that was profound about our visit to their home, is she wanted to make sure that instead of having after we'd met with them in the afternoon for tea, that instead of a private dinner, she said I'm hosting tonight, I've been there part of the day of conference with our partners on mental health and caregiving.

Let's go to the dinner at the community center. And so, the Carters and we went through the buffet line and with our plastic plates and forks, sat with her partners and had dinner and discussed the real issues on the ground that she was seeing in these areas.


TAPPER: Yeah. There was a real humility that they lived very rare in former precedents to say the least. Thank you so much for talking to us about your friendship, how special Melinda French Gates, really appreciate it. Coming up next. The former first ladies club, including a rare appearance from Melania Trump. They are getting back together to pay tribute to one of their own. We're going to bring you all the details after this short break. Stay with us.