How Jimmy Carter’s Face-Off with The Rabbit Changed the Presidency
By Jim O’Grady
Of all the crises that President Carter faced in 1979 — gas shortages, hostage-taking, runaway inflation — his bizarre encounter with a crazed swimming rabbit on a Georgia lake was as damaging as any to his image. The incident crystallized an emerging sense that Carter was a man in over his head.
The view was disputable. Carter had gotten off to a strong start as president, especially with his Nobel Prize-winning achievement of forging the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. But by the time the “killer rabbit” story broke on a sluggish news day in August 1979, many of Carter’s efforts to project himself as a forceful leader had fizzled or backfired.
Chief among those was his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, given on prime time TV in July. The public initially liked Carter’s call to action — “With God’s help and for the sake of our nation, it is time for us to join hands in America” — and gave him an 11 percent bump in the polls. But that was before Ronald Reagan and other rivals relabeled it the “malaise speech” and used it to portray Carter as a pessimist and a wimp.
Please do click on the pic and hit the play button for a very interesting account of the whole thing.
Then came the backwoods mammal that approached Carter as he fished on a pond, hissing as it bore down on his boat. Carter, who’d grown up in the country, calmly used his paddle to splash water at the critter and scare it away. But a photo of the encounter that the White House unwisely released to the press made the president look somewhat comical and small. How was a guy who let a rabbit get the drop on him supposed to guard the U.S. from attack by the Soviet Union?
Pop culture erupted with mocking commentaries, cartoons and novelty songs. The best of that bunch was a song by Tom Paxton called, “I Don’t Want A Bunny Wunny.”
Click on the image and then the play button to hear about the Reagan campaign’s vow to learn from the “bonzai bunny” about not losing control of the presidential narrative over trivial issues. That led to the creation of the image-management machine that endures in The White House to this day. The story includes interviews with Brooks Jackson, the AP reporter who broke the story, and presidential historian
Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary, described the affair in his 1986 book ”The Other Side of the Story”
April 20th, 1979
On a fishing trip in Plains, Georgia, President Carter had an encounter with a “swamp rabbit”. This seemingly trivial event was seized upon by the press and became a sort of Rorschach test of the Carter presidency: reporters and commentators saw in this story whatever they wanted to see in Carter’s administration. Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary, described the affair in his 1986 book The Other Side of the Story:
It began late one afternoon in the spring of 1979. The President was sitting with a few of us on the Truman Balcony. He had recently returned from a visit to Plains, and we were talking about home folks and how the quail were nesting and similar matters of international import.Suddenly, for no apparent reason — he was drinking lemonade, as I recall — the President volunteered the information that while fishing in a pond on his farm he had sighted a large animal swimming toward him. Upon closer inspection, the animal turned out to be a rabbit. Not one of your cutesy, Easter Bunny-type rabbits, but one of those big splay-footed things that we called swamp rabbits when I was growing up.
The animal was clearly in distress, or perhaps berserk. The President confessed to having had limited experience with enraged rabbits. He was unable to reach a definite conclusion about its state of mind. What was obvious, however, was that this large, wet animal, making strange hissing noises and gnashing its teeth, was intent upon climbing into the Presidential boat.
The President then evidently shooed the critter away from his boat with a paddle. The scene was captured on film by a White House photographer.
The incident might have died of natural causes but for the fact that Powell himself later passed the story along to the press:
Several months later I was chatting with Brooks Jackson, one of the White House correspondents for the Associated Press, over a cup of tea, as I remember. For reasons that I still do not fully understand, I told him about the President and the rabbit. I was the one who leaked the killer rabbit story.Although an experienced reporter, Brooks also failed to appreciate the significance of what he had heard. He did not rush to file an “urgent” story. In fact, he continued the conversation for some period of time and several more cups of tea. Not until the next day did he get around to sending this gripping account out over the wires to a waiting public. And even then it was a pleasant, lighthearted piece. Although he may not admit it now, I had the definite impression at the time that Brooks thought it was nothing more than a mildly amusing incident, too.
We were soon corrected. The Washington Post, exercising the news judgement that we in the White House had come to appreciate so keenly, headed the piece President Attacked by Rabbit and ran it on the front page. The more cautious New York Times boxed it on page A-12. That night, all three networks found time to report the amazing incident. But that was just the beginning.
It was a nightmare. The story ran for more than a week. The President was repeatedly asked to explain his behavior at town hall meetings, press conferences, and meetings with editors.
There was talk of a suit under the Freedom of Information Act to force release of the picture showing the President, paddle and rabbit in close proximity.
Shortly after the Reagan administration took office, they stumbled upon a copy of the picture — apparently while searching for a foreign policy — and reopened the old wounds by releasing it to the press.
Well – this is where I enter the story. I was 25 at the time the story broke, and I remember the furor over the incident. However, I can’t recall ever having seen the aforementioned picture. Web searches turned up plenty of references to the story, but no images; the story unfortunately broke before Al Gore invented the Internet.
I contacted the friendly folks at the Jimmy Carter Library about the picture, not really expecting much help:
Greetings, Jimmy Carter Library folks. Is the infamous picture of President Carter being attacked by a rabbit while fishing available from the Library? I suspect this is a common question, and I also suspect that the standard answer is “No, and we wouldn’t tell you if it were anyway.” 🙂 Still – I figured it was worth a try.
To my amazement, I received this response:
Thank you for your photo inquiry of November 7, 2003. The ‘killer rabbit’ photo is available at the Library. An 8×10 color print costs $25.50: a b&w print costs $20.50. We require prepayment and will accept a credit card or a check made out to the National Archives Trust Fund.Please contact us if we can be of further assistance.
After a few more exchanges, I wound up ordering a 300 dpi TIFF on CD. personally I think Jimmy Carter was one of my favorite US president and I really think there was a conspiracy here to make him look stupid. The reason I think this is why in the hell would a photograph would be there at this precise moment when this happened??? As for why they did this is pretty clear to me. The Us like wars because they are the number one manufacturer and dealers in weapons of all sorts. We all know that but there is a war that has a huge budget too and is at the base of a whole economy in itself and it’s the war against drugs. Jimmy Carter wanted to stop this non-sense that is still going on nowadays. Carter had handled very important crisis and did very well on all accounts but some people make a lot of money with drugs and they are not those black thugs… I really think we would be very surprised to see who really is at the top of this market…. We even have evidence!! The involvement of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in cocaine trafficking in Central America during the Reagan Administration as part of the Contra war in Nicaragua (where btw I lived for 2 years and I can guarantee you that USA citizens are not loved AT ALL in Nicaragua) has been the subject of several official and journalistic investigations since the mid 1980s. In 1986, the Reagan Administration acknowledged that funds from cocaine smuggling helped fund the Contra rebels, but stated that it was not authorized by the US government or resistance leaders. The Kerry Committee found that Contra drug links included payments to known drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department to carry out humanitarian assistance to the Contras. A CIA internal investigation found that agents had worked with drug traffickers to support the Contra program, but found no evidence of any conspiracy by CIA or its employees to bring drugs into the United States. So… It is pretty clear to me that if Jimmy Carter was showing any signs of ”softening” the drug policies, he was touching a very sensitive spot here…. But that’s only my opinion…. I would really, really like to have some feedback on this one..Now I know some people are going to say I’m stupid and paranoid or whatever, it’s ok as long as you are being respectful and can back up your opinion with some facts… I think if Jimmy Carter wouldn’t have met this damn rabbit, maybe, just maybe, some things would be very different now….I’m grateful to the folks at the Carter Library for their cheerful cooperation. They have advised me that the picture is in the public domain, but they would like any usage to note that the picture is courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Library.