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CNN Live Event/Special

Soon: Memorial Service For First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired November 28, 2023 - 12:30   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And you are looking at live pictures of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter's hearse arriving at Glenn Memorial Church on the campus of Emory University.

Welcome back to CNN special coverage of Rosalynn Carter's tribute service. She was a woman who helped shape, helped create the role of the modern First Lady. And today, the first ladies who followed in her footsteps, all of them, are coming together to honor her incredible legacy. And that does include Melania Trump, who has largely avoided the public eye since leaving Washington, D.C. in 2021.

I want to turn to CNN's Kristen Holmes. And Kristen, you know, we rarely see Melania Trump. I don't know that I've seen her at all since January 2021. What are you hearing about why she came today?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, we almost never see Melania Trump, even though her husband is running for president yet again. She's only been on the campaign trail once, when he announced last November. Other than that, she has not been at any of his events, and she has not appeared by his side for any of his court appearances.

She has taken a very different and untraditional approach to being a former first lady. She is not out there, she is not giving speeches, talking about her initiatives. She is really behind closed doors. And that is the way that I am told she likes it.

But today, she is taking part in a very traditional act, which is joining the other former and current first lady as part of this tribute to Rosalynn Carter. And I'm told that, in part, this decision was made by her because she didn't want to draw attention to herself, that she knew that all of the other former first ladies were going to be there and that it would become more of a thing if she didn't attend.

Now, of course, former President Donald Trump will not be there. But one thing that was surprising, just given Trump's nature, is that he did put out a very compassionate and kind statement about Rosalynn Carter when she died.

TAPPER: And Kristen, we have so many legacies of so many first ladies. I could go through them, each first lady and what they stood for Michelle Obama, for example, had her fitness and eating right. What does Melania Trump, she had her Be Best program, but what does she want to be known for?

HOLMES: One of the things that she really wants to be known for is the online bullying, that was part of the Be Best initiative. And she actually said in a recent interview with Fox Digital that she would do that again if she were to go back to the White House. She would expand on that, protecting children.

One thing that has been very clear to me, is that she loves her son, Barron. That is something that we hear from all of the people around her, and that's something she wants to be known for.

TAPPER: All right, Kristen, thanks so much.

Let's talk with our panel again. And, Tim, the New York Times called Rosalynn almost an equal co-president to Jimmy Carter. I don't know if you agree with that analysis, but, well, first of all, do you? And how big was her role in the Carter White House?

TIMOTHY NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, no, she, of course, she wasn't co-president, but she built on two previous first ladies, like Eleanor Roosevelt. She cared deeply about policy. And like Lady Bird Johnson, she was the president's closest confidante. She merged these two into really the most activist, most powerful first lady of the modern era.

And she was allowed to attend any Cabinet meeting she wished. Now, she didn't participate. She sat in the back. She took notes. Why did she do that? She did it so she could talk to Jimmy about the issues he was facing. And she gave him advice.

It's clear from her memoir, he didn't always take her advice. And he probably should have because she had a much more finely tuned political ear than he did. In fact, he wasn't political at all. She would tell him like, you don't want to really do this right now, do you?

For example, before the New York primary, when he was running, when Ted Kennedy was trying to prevent his renomination, she said, you don't really want to announce inflation cuts right now, do you, which are going to impact New York City big time? He did, and he lost the primary.

But she was and he said it too. He would call her his secret weapon. So she was a confidant, she cared about policy, and one more thing, and this is not like any previous first lady, like the way John F. Kennedy used his brother, Jimmy Carter used Rosalynn occasionally as a back channel.

Jimmy Carter sent Rosalynn to Latin America to deliver messages, not to the wives of the leaders in Latin America, but the Latin American leaders themselves about the importance of transitioning to democracy. So we'd never actually seen a first lady quite like her before.


TAPPER: Interesting. And Dana, Rosalynn revolutionized the office of First Lady as Anita and Kate noted, taking it from an unofficial office to one that was recognized, funded by Congress. How did that transition change the way that first ladies have operated since?

DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: I mean, enormously and Anita actually worked in the office, so you can definitely speak better more to that than I can. But what I can say is that -- and just this is more about what you said, Tim, in her memoir, Rosalynn Carter wrote, "I was more a political partner than a political wife".

One thing I can say to answer your question, not so much about the the office, but just about modeling what it's like to be a -- not just a first lady, but a mother in the White House. We talked about Melania Trump being there. She had a school aged child in the White House.

But the person who really modeled how she would raise her daughter after Rosalynn Carter was Hillary Clinton. I was just communicating with -- texting with somebody close to Hillary Clinton who said very specifically that the then first lady, Clinton, watched and looked at the way that Rosalynn Carter dealt with the fact that she did in nine- year-old.

Chelsea Clinton was 13 years old. And she tried to model a lot of the actions, maybe avoid some of the minefields that Rosalynn Carter unintentionally kind of stepped in, and that were very difficult for Amy Carter, like the first day of school when she went to that public school.

It was a complete media circus. That was something that the Clintons were trying to avoid. But it wasn't really -- especially in, at the time, modern media, it wasn't something that the Carters had any kind of path laid out for them before Amy Carter was there, and that's why the Carters did so for her the other families coming next who had school aged children.

ANITA MCBRIDE, AUTHOR, "U.S. FIRST LADIES": Well, it is such a reminder actually, if I can jump in that at the end of the day, they hold this powerful platform and she used the platform to the fullest. No doubt about it on the foreign policy front, on the domestic policy front. Putting herself physically in the East Wing, where no first lady had done that before.

But she was also a wife and mother. There's a family that lives in the White House, and trying to balance, you know, these two things with an increasingly, not intrusive, but interested media. You know, it -- she, no doubt, what you mentioned, the foreign policy trip, she was able to do all of this because the husband, her husband wanted her to and valued her as a partner.

All of the State Department briefers, the congressional briefers told her that she would not be successful to not go there. This is a macho dominated environment. And you will not be successful. What she ultimately ended up doing by meeting with each of the leaders was she opened doors for our diplomats to actually have access to them, to help them in this period of transition.

These were a lot of revolutionary governments that were coming in. They were anti-American. And by sending her, that was such an incredible step, encouraged by the president to really defy all of his advisers as well. In fact, his pollster told him, Pat Caddell, when he gave the president a report of how Americans perceived her trip, which changed dramatically how they looked at her because he -- it was so positive.

Eighty percent of Americans thought it was great and President Carter wrote at the bottom of the notes before it went to Mrs. Carter, now Rosalynn, don't run against your husband.

TAPPER: Coming up, the country will get a rare glimpse of --


TAPPER: -- former President Jimmy Carter. Since he entered hospice in February, he is expected to attend his beloved wife, Rosalynn's memorial service today. We're going to have the latest on his health, that's next.



TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's special coverage of a celebration of the remarkable life and legacy of Rosalynn Carter. I'm Jake Tapper in Washington and you are currently looking a live pictures of Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where a tribute service for the former First Lady is about to begin.

Former President Jimmy Carter will be there, we're told, to honor his late wife. They were married for 77 years. His attendance has been up in the air. It's been a day to day decision, frankly, because of his own frail health. He entered hospice care in February.

CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta has spent a lot of time with the Carters. They all live in Atlanta, Georgia. He joins me now. Sanjay, former President Carter, as I mentioned, he's been in hospice care, but he is expected to be at the ceremony today. He's not speaking. It's pretty remarkable that he's going to be there.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Look, I mean, it is remarkable, Jake. You think about the fact, he's 99 years old. He's a real fighter.


Age is an interesting thing, Jake. You know, you have people who are these super agers and it doesn't mean that they don't eventually have declines in their life. But the age at which they have these declines is just much, much later. So, you know, up until age 90 or so, he was just a very healthy guy.

So we know from his grandson, Jason. I think you talked about this earlier that he is very physically diminished. We haven't seen President Carter in quite some time, so we're not sure how he's going to appear, if he's going to say anything.

It sounds like he's probably not going to make any comments, but he is probably one of these people who's just sort of a super ager who has this decline, but comes, you know, in his 90s, in his case. I've seen him swinging hammers for habitat well into his mid-90s.

TAPPER: And he is such a survivor. I mean, he survived cancer that spread to his brain in 2015. He survived surgery to relieve pressure on his brain in 2019. He's been in hospice care since February. Here we are towards the end of November. It's hard to imagine a world without him, frankly.

GUPTA: Yes, you know, it's really interesting as well, Jake. I spent, as you mentioned, a fair amount of time with him, and I remember going back to August of 2015, and he was doing this press conference, talking about the fact that he had melanoma and that it had spread to his brain.

And, you know, we had been talking before that because they had found melanoma originally in his liver. They were trying to treat it. But then he did this press conference in August of that year, and it felt very much like a goodbye press conference. Just listen to a little bit of it.


JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, I've had a wonderful life. I've had thousands of friends and I've had an exciting and adventurous and gratifying existence. So I was surprisingly at ease, much more so than my wife was. But now I feel, you know, this is the hands of God whom I worship and I'll be prepared for anything that comes.


GUPTA: I mean, you sort of get a sense, Jake, of what I'm talking about. But let me show you sort of what happened in the months and years after that. So that was August of 2015. He was diagnosed with melanoma that had spread to his brain.

I've been a doctor for 30 years, Jake. And, you know, for most of that time, once you had certain cancers that had spread to the brain, there was very little, if anything, you could do. We know by December of that year, he was essentially declared cancer free. He was given radiation and these immune therapy drugs that were pretty new at that point, these immunotherapy drugs.

The one that he took was something known as Keytruda. Again, pretty new at that point. Now it is approved for 14 different types of cancers. And, you know, President Carter was one of the early recipients of that sort of treatment. It's a part of his medical legacy. A lot of people don't realize. And he was declared cancer free. Again, swinging hammers for habitat after what he thought and many thought was a death sentence at that point. If you go further into the timeline back into 2019, I think what started to happen and I think accelerated the process for him again, that very late decline in life really had a lot to do with false.

He fell, he broke his hip at one point, he fractured his pelvis at one point, he fell and hit his head, had to have surgery to remove a blood collection. That was all back in 2019. And then as you mentioned, for the last, you know, seven, eight, nine months now, he has been in hospice care.

Which hospice, by the way, as you know, Jake does not mean that things are necessarily imminent because he's been there for nine months. But it obviously means that the medical care that he was getting now needed to be at home. His ability to travel the hospitals and clinics was reduced.

And they realized that even though things were not imminent, that he was not going to be able to do some of the same things that he had done before and that what he was dealing with, they weren't thinking of it in terms of cure anymore, they were thinking of it in terms of management, Jake.

TAPPER: Yes. And now he's lost the love of his life.

Sanjay Gupta, thank you so much.

Coming up, quote, "My equal partner in everything I ever accomplished", unquote. That is how former President Jimmy Carter has long described his wife, Rosalynn. We're going to hear about their 77- year marriage, their 77-year union as we stand by for Rosalynn Carter's memorial service, just minutes away.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back to our coverage. You're looking at live pictures of Glenn Memorial Church on the campus of Emory University, where the memorial service for former First Lady Rosalynn Carter will take place moments from now.

We just saw images of country music stars Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks inside that church alongside other American luminaries, including we are expecting President Biden and the First lady, Jill -- Dr. Jill Biden, President Carter and -- I'm sorry, President Clinton and all former -- living former first ladies.


We have with us Jimmy Carter biographer, Kai Bird joining us. And I want to bring him in, in a second. But first I want to go to CNN's Eva McKend, who's outside the church, just to give us an update on who exactly has entered so far that we know. Eva, tell us who has made it to church on time, as they say.

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that Congressman Sanford Bishop is here, that former Ambassador Andrew Young is here, the owner of the Falcons, among other luminaries, Jake. You know, something that I think that we should all think about going into this tribute is how central faith is to the Carters.

I'm looking at the program here, and I see "Morning Has Broken" is among the songs that we will hear. When I was at Maranatha, that is their home church in Plains over the weekend, the congregants were encouraged that -- to sing that song at the top of their lungs because that was Rosalynn Carter's favorite song.

We're going to hear "Great is Thy Faithfulness". If you are in the church tradition, you know how powerful these songs can be. And so that is something that is getting them through this difficult time, faith and family. So central to the Carters lives.

TAPPER: Eva, thank you so much.

Despite his frail health, former President Jimmy Carter will be there, we were told, to honor his late wife of almost eight decades. The Carters were married for 77 years, longer than any other presidential couple. In fact, their marriage was longer than the lives of most U.S. presidents.

So let us bring in Kai Bird. He is the author of "The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter". In addition to many other books, perhaps you saw "Oppenheimer" over the summer.

Kai, when we see Former President Carter say goodbye to his wife of 77 years, he will also be saying goodbye to his closest political adviser, his best friend. It will be the end, truly, of one of the greatest love stories in American, not just political history, but in American history. What can you share with us about their nearly eight- decade long partnership?

KAI BIRD, AUTHOR, "THE OUTLIER": Well, yes, it was an amazing journey for them. And, you know, White House aides at the time in the Carter White House, they did refer to Rosalynn as the Steel Magnolia, precisely because she was so steely and so principled. And everyone knew that their partnership was ironclad.

I like the -- to recall the quote from one of their close friends and White House adviser, Stu Eizenstat, who once said, they don't have friends. They have each other. It was that close of a marriage. It was a real friendship. And he trusted her.

And she had enormous political instincts and principles, not only on mental health, as you have been mentioning, but she had a strong views about human rights in general, race, passing the ERA, feminist rights.

And I like to tell one story just to remind people of how she took her politics and made it very personal. When she became First Lady of Georgia in 1971, she toured the women's prison and was appalled by the conditions. And in the course of that visit, she met a young African- American woman named Mary Prince, who was a convicted murderer, who was serving a lifetime sentence for murder.

And Rosalynn became convinced in the course of several conversations that this young woman, Mary Prince, was innocent and that Southern justice had miscarried its justice. She hired Mary Prince, brought her into the Georgia governor's mansion, and appointed her the nanny for Amy.

And then when they moved to the White House, Mary Prince lived in the third floor of the White House. And she is still part of their family to this very day.

TAPPER: Amazing.

BIRD: She is -- she lives with -- in Plains. She's still working for them part time. It's just an incredible insight into the personal character of this amazing First Lady.

TAPPER: So I asked -- I've only gotten to interview Jimmy Carter once and I asked him.