Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Live Event/Special

Memorial Service Held For Rosalynn Carter. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired November 28, 2023 - 13:00   ET



KAI BIRD, AUTHOR, "THE OUTLIER": Insight into the personal character of this amazing first lady.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So I asked -- I have only gotten to interview Jimmy Carter once. And I asked him what his secret was with Rosalynn, how they made it so long as a couple.

And he gave me the four secrets. One of them was to basically never go to bed angry. One of them was to give each other space. You will notice that I'm not reading from notes. I committed them to memory.


TAPPER: One of them, to give each other space to do your own thing. One of them was to find things that you like doing together. For them, it was family.

And the first one, I thought was really interesting. It was to pick a good partner.


TAPPER: He knew that it wasn't -- you couldn't just do this with anyone. You had to select the right person. And I think that that was something that he really -- he really appreciated that he had done.

I know they met each other when they were just a few days old.

BIRD: That's right.

TAPPER: But that he knew that he had struck gold when he met her. And, like, that was -- he was like, this is perfect. I got the right woman here. This is great.

And he never lost sight of that, I feel. Tell me what you think.

BIRD: Well, that's absolutely correct.

And it's interesting to be reminded that Ms. Lillian, Carter's famously eccentric mother...

TAPPER: Right.

BIRD: ... was a nurse who actually delivered Rosalynn when she was born.

And a few days later, she brought Jimmy over to see the new baby in town. And there was an age difference of three years. And so they didn't grow up knowing each other. They knew of each other. They encountered each other.

And then when he was back on leave from the Naval Academy one day as a young man, he spotted her in the church, invited her out on a date to see a movie, came home that night and told Ms. Lillian, his mother, that he was going to marry Rosalynn.


BIRD: And he knew exactly, like you just said, that this was the woman.

And Rosalynn married Jimmy at the age of 18, very young, and she idolized this young Naval officer. She also, interestingly enough, saw him as a ticket out of Plains, out of this tiny little town of 668 people. And she wanted to see the world. And Jimmy showed her the world.

He -- for the next six years, they moved around various Naval bases in Hawaii and Massachusetts and Connecticut. And then, one day, Jimmy unilaterally announced that they were moving back to Plains and he was quitting the Navy.


BIRD: And she was horrified. She was literally horrified, and she yelled at him. She argued with him. He just said: "No, I have to go back. I have to take care of the family business. My father's died."

They drove back. On the long car ride back to Georgia from Massachusetts, she didn't speak a word to him. She was that angry.


BIRD: So it was a long marriage, but it had its moments of crisis.

TAPPER: Oh, yes. Marriage is work. No one ever said it wasn't.

But, look, it lasted 77 years. So, I mean, it's not like they didn't know what they were doing.

Kai, stick around. We're going to keep you on the panel here.

And, Kate, one thing that I really wanted to know, you said during the break that you got a chance to talk to the Carters about what they really thought about the previous president, Donald Trump. And they both answered you. And they gave different answers.

We know that Jimmy and Rosalynn had very different personas publicly, and Jimmy Carter spoke more publicly than Rosalynn. What did they tell you? What did they think of Donald Trump? KATE ANDERSEN BROWER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it's kind of like what

Melinda French Gates was saying. She spoke her mind. Rosalynn spoke her mind. She trusted her gut.

And so I was in their living room in Plains in this very modest home, tiny town, and they were sitting next to each other. And I asked about Donald Trump, and this was in 2018. And President Carter gave a kind of long-winded, thoughtful answer, saying, Ronald Reagan lied too, and there have been some terrible Republicans in office.

And Rosalynn just kind of nudged him and said: "Jimmy, come on, this is different. This is a president unlike any president we have seen before. He's destroying the country."

I mean, she was incredibly outspoken. And I think we saw that a lot with her. She just -- during the Iran hostage crisis, she called him up when she was campaigning for him, and he was in the Rose Garden trying to get the hostages out, and she said...


TAPPER: I'm -- let me interrupt for one second, Kate.


TAPPER: I'm so sorry.

This is, what we see here, Governor Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia. He is in his second term.

When Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia, they could only serve one term, I believe. They changed the law there. And that's the mayor of Atlanta who was just walking in behind him.

I'm sorry. Go ahead, Kate.

ANDERSEN BROWER: No, that Rosalynn said to him when she was campaigning -- this was during the Iran hostage crisis, and she was campaigning for him.

She did a lot of legwork, because he was at home in the White House trying to get the hostages released. And she said: "This is looking really bad."

She called him from the campaign trail. "I just need to let you know that this is not looking good." And he just said: "I don't want to hear it."

So, there were ups and downs in their marriage. They wrote a book together, and they fought so much writing this book that they had two separate documents. They separated and would write Rosalynn on one and Jimmy on the other. So it's not like everything was sunny and perfect all the time, but they were honest about their problems.

And I think that's what makes them empathetic and real, a real couple.

TAPPER: That was just -- we just saw a glimpse of a Senator and Reverend Raphael Warnock...


TAPPER: ... the first African-American senator since Reconstruction from Georgia, which had to have been a very significant moment in Jimmy Carter's life, I would think, as somebody who was -- worked so hard for racial progress, especially in Georgia, especially in Georgia.

I'm sorry, Jamie. Go ahead.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: No, I was just going to say, I love the story about their, let's just say, inability to write this book together, so much so that the...

TAPPER: Oh, remind everybody of that story.

GANGEL: The editor -- they just finally gave up, because they were fighting so much. And the editor said, OK, you will write this, and your name will go here, and you will write this, and your name will go here.

TAPPER: What exactly were the differences again? What was the problem?

GANGEL: This was...

ANDERSEN BROWER: I think that she liked to take her time, and he was fast. She was a little bit more thoughtful about it. He'd written more books than she had.


TAPPER: He could write like a book or two a year.

ANITA MCBRIDE, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO LAURA BUSH: And she wrote five. And she wrote five books.


TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: He was really angry that she took everything he wrote as a first draft and was rewriting all of his work.

TAPPER: Senator Jon Ossoff, another Democratic senator from the state of Georgia, and the first Jewish senator from Georgia.

GANGEL: The word that I would add about her to what Kai Bird said is the word independent, which I think was key both in what we saw of her public persona, but also in their relationship.

And you told the story about how -- I guess Kai Bird told the story about how she was furious when they went home to Plains, that she wanted to see the world. He also didn't ask her permission or discuss with her that he was going to run for office. That was a unilateral decision. On the other hand, unlike going back to Plains, she liked this

decision, because, again, it was going back into the world. She liked being that political partner. And I just think...

MCBRIDE: She was a great campaigner.

GANGEL: She was a great campaigner.

MCBRIDE: She would go into little towns with a friend. I think it was his sister. She would look for where the tallest radio towers were in these rural towns and knew there were radio stations there, and would show up and say: "Would you like to interview me? I'm Rosalynn Carter. My husband, Jimmy, is running for governor."

And they would say: "Jimmy who?"

And then she went prepared with a list of questions to be asked. She loved politics later in life. It's -- she loved politics, because she loved people.

I think there's just one thing, if I can add to the story Kai Bird told, which I think is so important, to your point about President Carter's fight for racial justice.

When that -- when they left the governorship to come to Washington to the White House, Mary Prince, who now had been working for them in the governor's mansion, she had to go back to prison, because the program was a state prisoner can work in a state, federal -- a state office.

So, when they were coming to Washington, in order -- the Carters had to go before the parole board to have her come with them to the White House, and Jimmy Carter had to agree to be her parole officer that entire time.

TAPPER: Is that right?


TAPPER: That's incredible.

Kai Bird, I did -- you left out that part of the story.



BIRD: All true.

TAPPER: That's quite a wrinkle, that Jimmy Carter had to be the parole officer, the president of the United States?

MCBRIDE: Great story about that.

BIRD: Exactly.

MCBRIDE: Trustworthy. ANDERSEN BROWER: She will definitely be here. I mean, I talked to

Mary in Plains. And she was still working for the family, like Kai said, lived down the street.

Her -- she was like a daughter to them really.

TAPPER: What -- and, Kai Bird, the decision to send Amy Carter to public school, how much of that was Rosalynn Carter? How much of that was Jimmy Carter?


I know that that was important as a symbol of their -- of their faith in public education. I don't know -- I don't think any president since then has sent their kid to public school. Usually, they send them to Sidwell Friends.

BIRD: Sidwell Friends is where they send them.


BIRD: The good Quaker school.

TAPPER: But -- right.

But the decision was Rosalynn behind that?

BIRD: Oh, I think Rosalynn was absolutely behind that. And Jimmy was behind it as a matter of frugality.


BIRD: He didn't want to spend the tuition that Sidwell Friends would charge. And he was a supporter of public schools.

They were both products of public schools in small Plains. And so it made only good sense for them to send -- they thought it was a natural and ordinary decision to send Amy to the public school that was just a few blocks from the White House.

Of course, it was a -- not only just a public school. She was probably the -- one of the handful of white children who went to this nearly all-black African-American school.

TAPPER: So you talked about how, from Massachusetts to Plains, Rosalynn didn't speak with her husband because she did not want to go back to Plains. She thought that he was going to be her ticket out.

And, of course, they lived the rest of their lives in Plains. That's where she passed away, I believe. And while other former presidents have magnificent estates all over the world and have become multimillionaires many times many times over, the Carters lived -- you talked about how frugal Jimmy Carter is.

That's -- they practice what they preach.

BIRD: Exactly.

TAPPER: They live the life that their church would want them to. They give their money to charity. They live modest means. They live in modest means.

Did she -- I assume she ultimately did warm to Plains, that she ultimately found...


BIRD: She didn't like it at first. She really had enjoyed being out in the world, and particularly living in Hawaii, for instance.

But she reconciled herself to it. When they moved back to Plains initially, that first year, they were on such a small budget, and there was a drought. The peanut harvest that year was poor. They lived in public housing in Plains, Georgia.


BIRD: So, yes, frugality is something that was a theme of their lives.

And she eventually got into a routine. She had wanted to get away, quite frankly, from her mother-in-law, Ms. Lillian, who was a very powerful, domineering, eccentric Southern woman.


BIRD: And she wanted to get away from her own mother, who was living alone. Her father had died when she was 12.

But she reconciled herself to small-town life and got into the -- building the Carter family peanut warehouse business. She became the bookkeeper, the business manager. And you're right. One of your panelists mentioned that Jimmy just one day decided in 1962 that he was going to run for state senator.

And he hadn't consulted her. He appeared in his Sunday best one day and said -- she asked him: "Where are you going?"


BIRD: But she welcomed the decision.

And while she was terribly shy initially on the campaign trail, she transformed herself into a magnificent speaker, very articulate. She became better, particularly on television, than Jimmy ever did. She was poised and articulate. And she had short talking points. And she was frank and to the point.

And she became his biggest asset on the campaign trail.

TAPPER: Fascinating.


elaborate on that public housing story that Kai just briefly mentioned, which is that, one, it was a necessity for them to live there after they lost the 1980 race.

But it's also pretty remarkable. They are the only presidential couple to live in public housing, period. And we don't really think about that. In fact, there was this big -- right after Rosalynn Carter died, there was a big article in this small Southern newspaper that basically documented this longer history of civil rights post- presidency.

And the centerpiece of this was the fact that, as a presidential couple, they lived in public housing, because it not just -- it wasn't just about the money or the finances, but it actually destigmatized public housing at a moment in time when public housing was all but being raked through the coals, was being decimated.


The other thing that I would say here too that is revealed in part by that decision, so we have used a lot of adjectives to describe Rosalynn Carter, but we haven't used fiery yet. And I think she's just remarkable in terms of the kind of fire that she brought to the campaign trail, that she brought to the White House, that she brought to her marriage, that she brought to her husband's enemies, as she called them, or opponents.

And she's actually one of the first first ladies post-presidency to be very critical of the succeeding president's administration. And she was very outspoken about the Reagan administration and what she saw as the Reagan administration's failures. And, now, we can surely talk about where those come from.

A lot of it comes from Iran, the Iran hostage situation, later Iran- Contra. But I think it's pretty -- it's pretty special that she was able to step out and to say these kinds of things and have the kind of bravery in order to say what was necessary, because she felt like the nation needed it.

TAPPER: And it was mainly, as I recall, Tim -- correct me if I'm wrong -- but a lot of what she was doing was criticizing their priorities when it came to how they treated the poor and the rich, and a great deal of it anyway.

NAFTALI: Yes. It was the end of the focus on human rights.

TAPPER: Right.

NAFTALI: After all, she had taken a -- not only -- she had taken a personal interest in encouraging human rights abroad. And she and her husband, President Carter, had wanted to end the American tradition of supporting dictators, military dictators.

And in come a different -- in comes a different administration with a more realistic view, if you will, a realist view. And so when the Reagan administration, in its effort to combat Castro-supported communism in Central America, cozied up to military dictatorships, Rosalynn Carter, as Jimmy Carter, both felt this was an undermining of an effort to change the American image and reputation in Latin America.

I wanted to mention something about the fiery part. After the loss, after 1980, President Carter, with Mrs. Carter next to him, was asked: "Aren't you bitter about your loss?"

And she responded: "I'm bitter enough for the both of us."


DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Well, and you talk about the major differences when it comes to policy, but just think about the anecdote that you were discussing, and Kai as well, about them living in public housing and kind of how they sent their daughter to public school, and how they were frugal.

I mean, imagine that and then what came next.


BASH: I mean, the Reagans ushered in the '80s and the era of excess.


BASH: Shoulder pads and excess and everything that went with it. I mean, that was...

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: "Lifestyles of the rich and famous."

BASH: All of it. All of it.


MCBRIDE: On a domestic policy level too, what was bitter for Mrs. Carter was what she worked so hard on, the mental health issue, and testified for, and then a bill was actually signed in 1980, right?

And then President Reagan and the administration comes in and the allocation through OMB was zeroed out for the mental health program. And that was a very, very difficult thing for Mrs. Carter to accept, something she had worked so hard on and was just now on the precipice of having a chance, and then was zeroed out.

And come -- fast-forward to 1994, when she is with Mrs. Ford, former first lady Betty Ford, and they're both testifying on health care reform together. They had a really wonderful relationship, those two former first ladies. But she testified in mental -- in the health care reform act for the mental health initiative, where Mrs. Ford, of course, then was testifying for addiction.

TAPPER: Yes, she did a lot of important work.

MCBRIDE: Right. TAPPER: I don't think we're going to hear from -- we're not going to hear from former President Jimmy Carter.

So, I -- if we can, I want to grab this moment to play some sound from him from a 2005 interview with Oprah in which he is recalling his first date with Rosalynn Carter and extolling what he saw in her that first moment that they went out when. He was 18 -- or she was 18 and he was 21.

If we could roll that quick clip, it's just a sweet remembrance of their first date.




I said: "Rosalynn Smith."

She said: "What did you think of Rosalynn?"

I said: "She's the one I'm going to marry."

I hadn't broached that subject with Rosalynn. I hadn't even thought about it myself.


OPRAH WINFREY, PRODUCER/PHILANTHROPIST: What was it you knew? What was it you knew or felt?

CARTER: I don't -- I can't really quantify it or describe it in words, but I knew that she was -- she was quiet. She was extremely intelligent. She was very timid, by the way, beautiful.

And there was just something about her that -- that was...


WINFREY: You're blushing.

CARTER: It was just -- well, I can't help it.



TAPPER: Very timid.

But she was, Kate, not actually very timid at all.

ANDERSEN BROWER: Not at all. I mean, she was the backbone of that presidency. She -- it was because of her that Camp David was held at Camp David. She thought that that was a smart idea. And that's one of the most important accomplishments of the Carter

presidency. So I love the idea that she was this fierce, feisty, strong woman. And I think we saw that in just -- just having a conversation with her, you could tell that she was somebody who -- she stood up for what she believed in.

And I think that what happened with the Reagans afterwards was just -- as Anita was saying, it was so disheartening for her, because a lot of the work she had done for mental health was undone. And I think also there was this feeling that she had that she wasn't appreciated by the Washington elite. She wasn't -- she didn't kind of have dinner parties with Katharine Graham.

And they famously got rid of hard liquor at the White House. They sold the Sequoia. He didn't want "Hail to the Chief" played. It was all this kind of folksy Southernness.

GANGEL: He carried his own bag.



GANGEL: They were outsiders in a certain way.

I just...

TAPPER: Let's just take a moment here. The hearse has pulled up to Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University.

And I believe that the pallbearers are going to approach the hearse, if we could just take a moment and watch and soak it in.


TAPPER: Those are the Carter grandchildren, I'm told, serving as honorary pallbearers.


TAPPER: You see the top left of your screen President Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden standing next to former President Clinton.



TAPPER: In the first row there, you see the first -- former first ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, next to Hillary Clinton, of course, former President Bill Clinton, first lady Jill Biden, President Biden.

Here comes former President Jimmy Carter, who has been in hospice care since February, being wheeled in, next to his daughter Amy Carter. Those are the Carters' kids. Next to President Biden is Jack Carter, followed by Chip Carter, then President Carter, Amy Carter, and then I think that's Jeff Carter at the end.