Woodruff gave this address at the tribute service for Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
President Carter. President Biden, Dr Biden. Vice President Harris, the second gentleman. President Clinton. Secretary Clinton. Mrs. Bush. Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Trump. Distinguished guests and friends.
Rosalynn Carter would be so pleased to see that she brought all of you together on this day. [applause]
First, my deepest condolences to you, President Carter. To Jack, to Chip, to Jeff, to Amy, and to your families. I am honored that you asked me to participate today.
News reporters and the public figures we cover don't always have the smoothest of relationships. Given the nature of our different roles, our interactions can be uncomfortable at times.
The first time I met Mrs. Carter, it was 1970 when she was campaigning hard for her husband to be elected governor. It was on the tarmac of a small airport somewhere in the middle of Georgia. And I sensed a wariness on her part. I was only a cub reporter for an Atlanta TV station, so that was understandable.
I'm happy to say that the wariness melted away. It may have taken about 40 years for that to happen [laughter] but it had by the time she invited me to attend a luncheon in Washington, where she was receiving an award for her work on caregiving. She knew that we have a son with disabilities and that caregiving is essential in our lives.
I know that my respect and admiration for her goes back to the very beginning. There was always something genuine about Mrs. Carter, a groundedness and a quiet self-assurance despite what she later wrote about her early struggles with public speaking.
I covered the Carters through their time as Georgia governor, through the historic and astonishing campaign for the presidency in 1976, through their years in the White House.
What we witnessed was a first lady who saw her role as going well beyond the essential warm and welcoming host to being a close and trusted, yes, advisor—in essence, an extension of the president himself.
A first lady who understood the weight of her words and especially her actions. A first lady who cared deeply about the American people, about how government policies and actions affect their daily lives. A first lady who took on tough assignments, who was, in her words, determined to be taken seriously and who wasn't afraid of controversy.
That started at the very beginning of her time in the White House when, as you heard, she made big news by sitting in on Cabinet meetings. As she put it, “There was no way I could discuss things with Jimmy in an intelligent way if I didn't.”
Continuing her push for something to be done about mental health issues she had adopted as first lady of Georgia, she immersed herself in the subject, insisting that ways be found to bring it out of the shadows, to erase the stigma associated with mental illness.
She personally lobbied for legislation and she saw it become law. She launched a childhood immunization initiative that led to the virtual elimination of measles as a public health program problem.
Just five months into the new administration, she took on an ambitious diplomatic mission—that two-week trip to the Caribbean, Central and South America that she described as more than a goodwill trip. She said she wanted it to be valuable in each country, to bring back their concerns to her husband. She had studied his foreign policy intensely, especially on human rights. She took a cram-course in Spanish.
I was one of the reporters who travel with her on that 12,000 mile journey. I had not studied Spanish. And I'll never forget the looks on the faces of some of the Latin leaders as they realized that they were dealing with a serious, supremely well-informed and well-briefed representative of the president of the United States. The person closer to him than anyone else. Criticism ahead of time that she would be dismissed melted away.
She lobbied for other important legislation, including one of the earliest efforts to cut the cost of health care, the so-called Hospital Cost Containment Bill. Mrs. Carter was traveling with the president in Japan to attend an economic summit when word came from Washington that they were a few votes shy, including from a senator who was traveling with them on the bullet train to Kyoto. It was Mrs. Carter who spoke to Hawaii Senator Spark Matsunaga, persuaded him to phone in his proxy. The bill passed.
And there was a Middle East. Thirteen days of tense talks among President Carter, Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat. Mrs. Carter was the one who suggested first that they meet at Camp David, noting that it was far removed from the pressures and the controversies of Washington. President Carter said she was a partner in his thinking throughout the negotiations. The Camp David Accords have survived as one of the very few enduring agreements to come out of the Middle East.
I last interviewed President and Mrs. Carter together, in Plains, in July 2021, as they were celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary. I asked them how they thought President Biden was doing early in his term. President Carter was very specific on issue after issue [laughter] and quite complimentary of the new president. Mrs. Carter said simply, “It's a great relief to have him in office.”
And what a love story. For 77 years they adored each other. And had much in common—intelligence, compassion, curiosity, courage. And apparently, they could both be a little stubborn. She often said the most challenging time of their marriage was when they co-authored a book.
My connection with President and Mrs. Carter is more than professional. It was the summer of 1976 when I met my husband, Al Hunt, who was then with the Wall Street Journal on the Plains High School athletic field, where competitive, then-candidate Jimmy Carter organized softball games between his campaign staff—with a lot of help from the very fit Secret Service agents [laughter]—and on the other side, the press corps. The press always lost. [laughter]
Al and I didn't see each other again until the spring of 1977 after NBC News moved me to Washington to cover the White House. You know, if Jimmy Carter hadn't been elected, we would likely never have gotten married, had three children, and a grandson. So as fate and only 1,683,247 votes would have it, our lives are connected with theirs.
When Jimmy Carter was running for president the first time, a reporter asked Rosalynn why she was campaigning five days a week, 20 hours a day. Her answer? “It's a labor of love. Besides, I won't have any regrets if he loses because I am doing everything I can possibly do.”
That to me explains why she did so much, worked so hard throughout her entire life, at the White House and in the many years before and since, championing the rights of the underserved, coming to the aid of the most vulnerable, doing whatever she could to improve the lives of others—so she wouldn't have regrets that she hadn't done everything in her power to do. That's who she was.
Without Rosalynn Carter, I don't believe there would have been a President Carter. She and the two of you set an example for all of us.
I agree with my friend Jim Fallows, who wrote, “Her memory will be a blessing. Her influence on the world will be her monument.”
Because of Rosalynn Carter, millions of lives are better off. What a gift she left.
PBS NewsHour. “WATCH: Judy Woodruff shares personal memories of Rosalynn Carter in memorial service tribute.” YouTube video, 9:49. Nov. 28, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cC-3w3IwaZc