ATLANTA — President Biden plans to attend a tribute service here Tuesday for former first lady Rosalynn Carter, honoring a woman with whom he enjoyed a friendship of nearly half-a-century before her death this month at age 96.
First lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and first gentleman Doug Emhoff are also scheduled to attend the service at a church at Emory University.
The trip comes at an intense time for the president, who has spent countless hours focusing on Israel’s war in Gaza and seeking the release of hostages held by Hamas. But Biden, who often talks about how his life was shaped by the deaths of his first wife and daughter, regularly attends events to commemorate the death of a friend or former colleague.
Carter’s memorial service will be followed by a funeral on Wednesday in Plains, Ga., where she and her husband, former president Jimmy Carter, lived most of their lives. She will be buried at the home they have shared since the 1960s.
Biden is not expected to speak at Tuesday’s memorial.
The former first lady’s death comes as Jimmy Carter faces his own challenges, having entered home hospice in February and celebrated his 99th birthday this fall. In March, Biden inadvertently revealed that Carter had asked him to deliver his future eulogy.
Biden’s history with the couple dates from 1976, when he became the first senator to endorse Jimmy Carter for president. In an undated letter to a Democratic colleague, Biden — then 33 — argued that the former Georgia governor was “the candidate who can bring the presidency back to our party.”
President Gerald Ford, who had ascended to the White House upon the resignation of Richard M. Nixon amid the Watergate scandal, was the Republican nominee and seeking to be elected in his own right.
Biden campaigned extensively for Carter, a dark-horse candidate who had served in the Navy and worked in his family’s peanut farming business before entering politics. In a video that aired before the 2021 premier of “Carterland,” a documentary on Carter’s presidency, Biden recalled traveling to Wisconsin to deliver his endorsement.
“Some of my colleagues in the Senate thought it was youthful exuberance on my part,” he said with a laugh. “Well, I was exuberant.”
Carter had little national profile when he launched his presidential campaign, but outsider status turned out to be something of an asset as voters were looking for a newcomer in the aftermath of Watergate.
Biden continued to serve as an ally after Carter won the presidency, though the pair did not always agree. Biden strongly opposed court-ordered school busing in his home state of Delaware, and he introduced a bill limiting the courts’ ability to mandate such action, biographer Jonathan Alter wrote in “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.”
Carter thought Biden’s bill was unconstitutional. Frustrated, Biden complained that the president did not understand how Washington worked.
“Nixon had his enemies list, and President Carter has his friends list,” Biden said. “I guess I’m on his friends list, and I don’t know which is worse.”
Carter, meanwhile, described the young senator as “independent almost to a fault,” Julie Pace and Darlene Superville wrote in “Jill: A Biography of the First Lady.”
Still, Biden endorsed Carter for reelection in 1980 as he faced a primary challenge from Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Carter won the Democratic nomination but lost the general election to Republican Ronald Reagan in a landslide.
Carter returned the endorsement when Biden became the Democratic nominee for president in 2020. “Joe Biden was my first and most effective supporter in the Senate,” he said in a video that played at the Democratic National Convention. Rosalynn Carter praised Biden in the video for working with her to support unpaid caregivers.
Unable to travel to Washington for Biden’s inauguration, Jimmy Carter talked with him by phone the night before he was sworn in. President Biden and Jill Biden later visited the Carters in Plains before speaking at an event in Duluth, Ga., to mark Biden’s 100th day in office.
“They are such a powerful reminder that serving our country isn’t limited to the office you hold,” Jill Biden told the crowd. “The Carters continue their work, making our country stronger every day, and we are grateful and honored for their friendship.’
Joe Biden and Jimmy Carter have stayed in touch throughout Biden’s presidency, officials say. In October, Biden called Carter to tell him he had moved to protect Alaskan land and canceled oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Carter has said he considers the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act one of his most important achievements as president.
After Rosalynn Carter died on Nov. 19, the Bidens praised her as an inspirational woman who “walked her own path.” They recognized her in a statement as an advocate for women and girls and a supporter of mental health care.
“Time and time again, during the more-than-four-decades of our friendship — through rigors of campaigns, through the darkness of deep and profound loss — we always felt the hope, warmth and optimism of Rosalynn Carter,” the Bidens said.