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The Time of Her Life

Charging Ahead With Cherished Causes Such as Mental Health, Ex-First Lady Rosalynn Carter Finds She's a Potent Force for Good Nearly Two Decades After Leaving the White House

June 12, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

"While most presidents and presidents' wives think it is time to rest on their laurels, she has surfaced fighting."

-- Actress Mariette Hartley, introducing former First Lady Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter is 70 now; almost two decades have whizzed by since she and Jimmy Carter occupied the White House. "I thought when Jimmy lost the election, we'd go home and we'd be bored to death the rest of our lives," she recalls with a laugh. "But we haven't had time."

Consider their "retirement" agenda:

* Trips once or twice a year to Africa, where projects in 35 countries are sponsored by the Atlanta-based Carter Center, projects such as eradication of guinea worm disease and immunization against childhood diseases.

* A week each month at the 16-year-old center, meeting with fellows and staff. "We try to crowd into that one week everything we need to do in Atlanta," she says, "but it never works."

* Habitat for Humanity, a network of volunteers who build homes for the needy. Hands-on stuff, hammers and nails. "Next week," she says, "we're going to be building 100 houses in Houston."

* The Friendship Force, which promotes international friendships through home-stay exchanges.

* A plethora of books--his, hers and theirs--most recently her "Helping Someone With Mental Illness" (Times Books, 1998). Erasing the stigma of mental illness has long been one of her priorities.

She works to raise awareness of mental health issues worldwide through International Women Leaders for Mental Health, a global coalition of 44 first ladies, royalty and heads of state. The Rosalynn Carter Institute at Georgia Southwestern State University addresses concerns of those who care for the mentally ill and others with disabilities.

(Her husband has a new book, too, "The Virtues of Aging," coming out in October from Ballantine Books. And as we spoke, he was at home, working on "a historical novel about the Revolutionary War. It's based on his family." It's evolving, she says. "He came in one day and said, 'The strangest thing happened. Two of my characters had sex.' And I said, 'Was that a surprise to you?' It was, he said--they were taking on a life of their own.")

*

"I've had a very interesting life," says Rosalynn Carter, in a bit of understatement.

"When you leave the White House, what you realize is you still have all the resources . . . because Jimmy was president, anybody in any field will help you with anything. It makes it so wonderful when you're really interested in an issue and want to work on it, to have that kind of resource."

Despite their commitments to helping others, life is not all work and no play for the Carters. They pencil in a week or two of fishing every year and only recently returned from trout fishing at Spruce Creek, Pa. "I'm an avid fly fisher," she says.

Still, in what was not an atypical week, she was at the opening Monday night of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio, then on to Los Angeles to promote her book and be honored for her advocacy for the mentally ill, with a guest appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

As a former first lady once widely criticized for sitting in on Cabinet meetings, she says she was pleased to learn at the First Ladies Library event that "the first Mrs. (Woodrow) Wilson became interested in housing issues and said she was going to rid Washington of slum dwellings." Indeed, Ellen Wilson was instrumental in the passage of a housing bill in 1914.

"We think it's unprecedented today if a first lady tries to get involved in legislation," Carter continues with a smile. "I think a lot of criticisms of the first lady are really political. That's a good way to hurt the president, to criticize his wife."

Current speculation about a possible race for the White House in 2000 between Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Rodham Clinton has not escaped her notice. Does she think there will be a woman president in her lifetime?

"I hope so," she replies. "I don't know why we can't elect a woman president when Great Britain and Norway do."

*

"People still believe the myths" about mental illness, she said Wednesday morning in an interview before her appearance on the Family Channel's "Home and Family" show. "In the past, when we didn't know anything about how to treat people, we just put them away" in what first were called asylums and later called institutions. "The stigma is still there. The stigma is pervasive."

People connect mental illness with violence even though, she said, studies show that only 3% of the mentally ill are violent. In the media, "70% are portrayed as violent." In fact, "mentally ill people are more shy and retiring than violent" and are more apt to be victims than perpetrators.

In an effort to stop false portrayals, she has talked to Hollywood producers, directors and script writers and to influential people in television. False stereotyping also has been a subject for discussion at the Carter Center.

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