Achsah Nesmith, former Carter speechwriter, dies at 84

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Achsah Nesmith, former Carter speechwriter, dies at 84
From left to right: Cathy Gwin, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, Achsah Nesmith and Margaret Timberlake. Nesmith worked with Gwin and Timberlake in Nunn's office in the 1990s. (Photo/Cathy Gwin)
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

Eudora Achsah Nesmith, journalist, speechwriter for former President Jimmy Carter and Alexandria resident for 46 years, died March 5. She was 84.

A trailblazer in journalism and public service, Achsah made history as one of the first female speechwriters in United States history. She was also the only one who served all four years of Carter’s administration.

Achsah Posey was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, to a nurse and storekeeper.

She started her journalism career at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after graduating from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She started as a summer intern and never left.

Achsah Nesmith was an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter when Jimmy Carter was Georgia Governor in the 1960s. She later became a speechwriter for Carter when he was elected president. (Photo/Susannah Nesmith)

“When that summer was done, they hired a couple of the interns … and they didn’t say anything to Mom, so she just kept working,” Susannah Nesmith, Achsah’s daughter, said.

Achsah told the story to her loved ones often, saying an editor – who, according to Achsah’s telling, never anticipated hiring a woman reporter – came up to her and merely said, “So, I guess you’re going to stay.”

At the AJC, Achsah covered a myriad of stories, including investigations, the Georgia state legislature, Carter’s campaign for governor and the Civil Rights Movement. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Achsah was tasked with writing the front-page obituary about him.

“She told me she wrote that as she wept,” Susannah recalled. “It was just a traumatizing thing, I think, for anybody who believed that the South could change. She had very deep respect for him and very high hopes for what he could accomplish.”

Achsah met her husband of nearly 57 years, Hollis Jefferson “Jeff” Nesmith Jr., in AJC’s parking lot. Jeff was a fellow journalist, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his reporting uncovering mismanagement in military healthcare. He died in January 2023.

Achsah covered Carter throughout his campaign for governor in 1966 and became close to him, as she was often the only reporter present, Susannah said. They became so close that once he was president-elect in 1977, his press secretary, Jody Powell, called and offered her a speechwriting job. They were living in Philadelphia at the time for Jeff’s job.

She declined it, though, citing her children as the main reason; she had stopped working when Susannah was born in 1970. As the story goes, Susannah said, “Dad asked her if she could get back on the phone and say, ‘[He] can raise babies.’”

Susannah said one thing her parents taught her and her brother Jeff was what to expect and find in a partner.

“She always said the best gift she gave us was finding the best father for us, and it was true,” Susannah recalled. “Dad had so much respect for her and her career.”

Achsah never bragged about her position, either in the literal sense or in history; Jeff said she was humble and often credited the women who came before her, especially those that were not paid.

Achsah Nesmith and her fellow speechwriters for President Jimmy Carter were sworn into their jobs in 1977. (Photo/Susannah Nesmith)

“She was always quick to point out that maybe they weren’t salaried, but John Adams’ wife helped him write speeches,” Jeff recalled. “I think she recognized the glass ceilings that she was breaking – not just in the White House, but in newsrooms in Atlanta in the ‘60s.”

In 1977, the family moved into a historic home on Longview Drive in Alexandria that had been used as a hospital during the Civil War. Jeff said because his mother was a history buff, Alexandria was the perfect place for her.

“She loved the historicity of Old Town and just everything about Alexandria … [it was] something she really valued,” Jeff recalled. “All throughout that house, just stacks and stacks of books about [Thomas] Jefferson and [George] Washington and the founding fathers and the Civil War.”

Susannah said Achsah chose Alexandria specifically for the public school system.

“Education was always super important to my mother … and the [Washington,] D.C. area was still kind of working its way through integration,” Susannah said. “[Alexandria schools] seemed to be successfully on the tail end of integration. She didn’t want us to go to schools that had not yet been integrated.

“… She believed very deeply in the end of the Jim Crow South and in the New South. Alexandria was personal to her,” Susannah recalled.

And the reason she re-entered the workforce to write speeches for Carter was similar: She believed in him as a person and aligned with his views and values. Susannah remembers Achsah’s sadness when Carter was not reelected for a second term, believing he would be even better a second time around.

“She was deeply disappointed when he lost the election [in 1980],” Susannah recalled of that time. “The day after, she planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs along the sides of the driveway. She told a reporter … that it felt like the only good thing she could do.”

Following the Carter presidency, Achsah freelanced and volunteered with the Old Presbyterian Meeting House for several years. A pillar of her character was trying to rectify injustice wherever she could.

Mary Miller, assistant church secretary at the time, remembers Achsah’s gentle and cordial demeanor, calling her a “very nice lady.” She recalled Achsah’s accomplishments at the Meeting House and involvement in the community.

“She was a very, very lovely lady,” Miller recalled. “She was serious, and yet she could be friendly and she was chatty, yet she could be quiet.”

Homelessness was an important issue to Achsah, and she was instrumental in the creation of Carpenter’s Shelter. She also created a bagged lunch program in the area, which was an instant success.

“There were a lot of people worried about the homeless population in Lafayette Park in [the District], the Vietnam veterans,” Susannah said. “Other churches, when she first reached out to them, didn’t think there was much need for that – it was kind of a D.C. problem.”

Around this time in the mid-1980s, Achsah also went to work for then U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia who has since co-founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

“Achsah had a quiet and caring but very strong voice, with a depth of knowledge across many areas. She was a talented and wonderful partner for those of us in the arena of public service,” Nunn said in a written statement. “I was very proud to be the beneficiary of Achsah’s wonderful character, her wisdom and her sound judgment. She was able to read a room on every occasion.”

Later in life, Achsah tutored children in Alexandria City Public Schools, most often teaching them how to read. Susannah said she was instrumental in teaching her and her brother how to read as well, even as she worked in the White House.

“While she was in the White House, at night, taught my brother and I at the same time when he was three and I was seven,” Susannah recalled.

Achsah officially retired in 2000 or 2001. Though in her 60s by then, she received her master’s of arts in liberal studies from Georgetown University.

Reflecting on her parents’ life lessons, Susannah said she will always remember their mantra to “figure it out.” Achsah had never written a speech before being hired by Carter.

“To turn down the opportunity because she didn’t know how was not something she had considered,” Susannah said. “Neither one of them not knowing how was never used as an excuse for anything, because you could figure it out.”

When Jeff and his family moved to Arlington at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became routine that he and his children would meet with his parents each week.

“It was, for the first time, they could spend more regular time with the [grand]kids,” Jeff recalled. “These last few years have been particularly special for me, just being able to watch them interact and get to know each other.”

Achsah is survived by her daughter Susannah and husband Charles Rabin; Jeff and wife Tara Ronzetti; two grandchildren and niece Debbie Middleton. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Mamatoto Village, the Carter Center or NTI.

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