Even at the best of times, it’s no picnic being the President of the United States. Being President in the 1970s was practically impossible.
Nixon inherited the bloody Vietnam conflict and struggled to govern a deeply divided nation through the oil crisis, economic stagnation, and that little Watergate thing. Athletic, competent Gerald Ford started out his brief presidency by pardoning Nixon for his crimes, heroically sparing the country an even more divisive trial; for his trouble, he got not one but two assassination attempts, and Chevy Chase turned him into a bumbling national joke. But nothing compares to the travails of our Thirty-ninth President, James Earl Carter. Double digit inflation. A bloated and unresponsive federal government. The collapse of Iran, the rise of radical Islam, and the intractable hostage crisis.
And the rabbits. The relentless, murderous rabbits.
Friday, April 20, 1979. Deeply unpopular and fatigued from the stresses of his office, Carter returns to the comforts of his Plains, Georgia home. “What can I do to ease my worried mind?” Carter thinks to himself. “Perhaps a little fishing.”
A small pond in Webster County provided the setting. The intrepid Carter boards Pond One. But on that fateful afternoon, the fish were not the only thing biting.
Alone in his fishing craft on that warm spring day, the beleaguered President dips his line in the water. Perhaps he ponders innovative solutions to the hoard of trouble facing his administration. For a moment, time stops. A wave of bliss comes over Carter. He is one with nature.
But nature is a harsh mistress. The tranquil waters are soon broken by a guttural growl. Waves break against the flailing and hissing of an unseen foe. Carter sits up, alert, snapped out of his reverie, his Jimmy-sense tingling with imminent danger. He steadies his grip on the lone weapon at hand, the fishing boat’s oar.
In the water, the steely eyes of the predator fixate on the Leader of the Free World. For the first time, Carter comes face to face with his malevolent enemy. KGB Frogman? Iranian Jihadi? Move over. Terror has a new name.
Swamp Rabbit. Jimmy Carter was attacked by a swamp rabbit.
But like the mythical Rabbit of Caerbannog, this was no ordinary cuddlebudget. Contemporary press accounts described the creature as “hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared and making straight for the President.”
In his 1986 book The Other Side Of The Story, Carter’s White House Press Secretary Jody Powell described the black-pawed would-be assassin thusly. “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,” Powell wrote (emphasis added).
“The President confessed to having had limited experience with enraged rabbits,” Powell continued. “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 total failure of the United States Secret Service to stop the rabbit incursion has never been fully explained. Characteristically, Carter took decisive action, and fended off the interloper, who quickly retreated to the murky waters below.
“I took the boat paddle and hit water at the rabbit,” Carter told reporter Frank Thompson in 1979. “He eventually and reluctantly turned away and went toward the shore.”
The Order of Succession would not be needed. The President was safe.
A moment of random weirdness, perhaps best forgotten. That might have been the end of it, but for a night of drunken carousing (or a “cup of tea,” depending on whose story you believe) by Jody Powell. Whether fueled by Earl Grey or Glenlivet, Powell regaled Associated Press reporter Brooks Jackson with the story. The next day, the Washington Post‘s banner front-page headline was “President Attacked By Rabbit.”
The ensuing panic gripped the nation for weeks. Carter’s political enemies sharpened their knives, attacking the veracity of the tale and claiming simple country rabbits could not swim. Reporters demanded the official White House photographer’s pictures of the creature, even threatening to sue the administration via the Freedom Of Information Act. Powell refused to release them, leaving the incident to the fertile imaginations of the nation’s citizens, political cartoonists, and comedy sketch writers. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake, allowing the rabbit to become an outsize Night Of The Lepus-style behemoth. Everywhere Carter went, instead of answering questions on the country’s urgent economic and foreign policy problems, he was grilled about the rabbit attack.
A more reactionary President might have ordered airstrikes on Georgia ponds, or declared the creature part of some petting zoo axis of evil. Nixon, clearly, would have seen the rabbit as the vanguard of some vast conspiracy. The good-natured Carter, though, found sympathy for the devil. “The rabbit, I don’t think, was trying to attack me,” Carter told Thompson. “My guess is that the rabbit had been startled by some dogs, or something.”
Late ’70s Americans then embraced a new fad, inadvertently drowning their pet bunnies. “After that, a lot of people that had tame bunny rabbits threw them in the swimming pools and so forth around the nation and wrote me to tell me that that rabbit could swim, too,” Carter told CNN in 2010.
“There was nothing to it,” claimed a clearly still-in-shock Carter. “When Jody told it to his fellow drinkers, it became a very humorous and still lasting story.”
Not so humorous for Carter’s Presidential image, however. The Washington Post, never high on the Carter administration’s Christmas card list, called the incident a symbol of Carter’s “hapless, enfeebled presidency.” Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy was reputedly encouraged by the incident to mount a bitter primary challenge to Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. Carter was able to fend Kennedy off with the same naval aplomb he used on the rabbit, but the weakened President was demolished in the Reagan landslide. To add insult to injury, Reagan’s minions soon found the suppressed photographs of the Carter/Bunny battle and gleefully released them to the press.
These days, keeping the President of the United States safe from wild animal attacks is everyone’s responsibility. In mid-November 2011, in anticipation of a forthcoming visit by the American Chief Executive, the Chief Minister of Australia’s Northern Territory took out an insurance policy for President Barack Obama and his family. The policy pays the Obamas $50,000—should the President be attacked by a crocodile. Lest we forget.
—Cait Brennan, Contributing Staff