IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'I just hope people think I did the best I could'

In part four of "Today's" special series, "America's First Ladies," Rosalynn Carter reflects on her days in the White House and the work she and President Jimmy Carter continue to do today. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.
/ Source: TODAY

In part four of "Today's" exclusive series of interviews with America's first ladies, we feature Rosalynn Carter — a woman whose husband rose from political obscurity to become president of the United States. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell visited the Carter's hometown of Plains, Georgia.

Today a national historic site, but back in 1976, no one had heard of this peanut farming town. And few knew much about the man who would put this place on the map.

"Jimmy who? Jimmy who?  I don't know who he is..."

Jimmy Carter, the southern governor who became the 39th president… coming to power after the scars of Watergate.

His first lady, the daughter of a widowed  seamstress, grew into the woman he decided to marry on their very first date. In 1946, Rosalynn Smith was just 19 when they wed. Three sons followed and after a 15-year gap, a daughter, Amy, who was just nine when her dad was sworn in.

Today Rosalynn Carter is 76 and the grandmother of 11. During a tour of the Plains Inn she helped renovate, Mrs Carter revealed she is still a bit wistful about their days in the White House.

"The thing I really miss is Jimmy in the Oval Office making the decisions," says Carter.

Kelly O’Donnell: "When you look back on the White House years, what stands out as the most memorable moment?”

Rosalynn Carter: “I think the night the Camp David Accords were signed."

A deal for peace between Egypt and Israel that has held for more than 25 years. The negotiations dragged on an unexpected two weeks, so Mrs. Carter filled in at some White House functions.

"They told me when I left Camp David, ‘Don't smile. They'll think everything is going great. Don't frown. They'll think we're not going to get the agreement,’" explains Carter.

President Carter confided in Rosalynn when the agreement was reached but told her not to tell the wife of Israeli prime minister Menachim Begin until they returned to the White House.

Says Carter, "And they got off the helicopter and walked across all laughing and smiling… It was quite an experience."

President Carter describes Rosalynn as his "equal" and her influence was evident.

O’Donnell: "You attended cabinet meetings. You were actively involved. Did that surprise people?"

Carter: "Some people didn't like it. I had a lot criticism about it. And I had learned a long time before  that no matter what you do, you're going to be criticized. And so you just do what you think is good and best in life for the country and the things you're interested in."

Her own agenda as first lady: mental illness.

Carter: "Nobody understood how to treat people with mental illnesses. They just kept them shut away. That's totally changed today."

O’Donnell: "What do you think is still yet to be achieved?"

Carter: "If we could somehow overcome the stigma everything would fall in place."

O’Donnell: "There were some difficult days during your husband's presidency. When you look back on that, what still causes you some sadness or some disappointment when you remember?"

Carter: "Well of course I was disappointed because we couldn't get the hostages out."

In 1979, Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of Americans hostage, in what became the defining crisis of the Carter administration.

Carter: "I'd say ‘Honey do something.’ and he'd say, ‘Okay suppose I mine the harbor and they start taking the hostages out one at a time and executing them. Then what would I do?’

I always thought we could have bombed Tehran and won re-election but they would have killed the hostages."

After 444 days and a failed rescue attempt, the hostages were released — on the very day Jimmy Carter left office and Ronald Reagan became president.

Carter: “The best thing about that was they all came home, every single one of them."

O’Donnell: "The campaign of 1980, on that election night that must have been so hard?"

Carter: "It was hard but I had, I knew that day that we were going to lose."

"I promised you, I promised you four years ago that I would never lie to you so I can't stand here tonight and say it doesn't hurt.” (Jimmy Carter file tape.)

O’Donnell: "How long did it take to get over it?"

Carter: "It took me a while. I was bitter. Because I thought, "He was doing a good job, but people didn't know it because we didn't get very good press while we were there."

O’Donnell: "When you and President Carter left office you were both still very young. Could you have imagined 20 years of this kind of global involvement?"

Carter: “I thought I was coming home from the White House and be bored to death the rest of my life in Plains, Georgia."

Hardly. In 1982, they formed the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Carter: "We work on peace and health. And all of our programs fall under those two categories. We work with the poorest people in the world."

Now active in 65 countries — many in Latin America and Africa — their mission includes health care, providing immunizations that have nearly wiped out some diseases.

Carter: "I get emotional when I think about it. It’s just absolutely wonderful."

Together, they have hammered away at homelessness, building affordable homes for the needy through "Habitat for Humanity."

O’Donnell: "There was a great deal of criticism about President Carter's administration and almost as much praise for his life after he left the White House. Has that given you some sense of comfort or vindication?"

Carter: "No"

O’Donnell: "Really?"

Carter: "No. And the reason is because it irritates me when people say, "He's been a good former president." He was a good president and people will know that someday. So I don't worry about his place in history."

His greatest advocate, but she has a legacy earned on her own.

"I just hope that people think I did the best I could, that I was there. I worked hard and did the best I could," says Carter.

When the Carters left Washington, Rosalynn  was urged to run for the Senate in Georgia. So Mrs. Clinton was not the first encouraged to run. Today they spend about a third of their time traveling the world.