Not the worst moment of his presidency. Not his best either.
While home in Plains, Georgia, President Jimmy Carter set out on a solo fishing expedition when he came under attack by a ferocious swamp rabbit. The rabbit, which had been swimming near his boat, attempted to board the vessel despite Carter’s efforts to shoo it away with his paddle.
It was the kind of unusual fishing story that is often passed on among friends, and the president related it to his press secretary, Jody Powell and a few aides one afternoon at the White House over lemonade. Powell made the mistake of passing the story along to Associated Press reporter Brooks Jackson. Jackson filed a “human interest” story, which the Washington Post ran on the front page beneath the headline, “President Attacked by Rabbit.” It was accompanied by a cartoon alluding to famous “Jaws” movie poster entitled “Paws.”
“A ‘killer rabbit’ attacked President Carter on a recent trip to Plains, Georgia,” Jackson’s story read. “The rabbit … was hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared, and making straight for the President.” All three television networks carried the story, which seemed straight out of a Monty Python skit, on their national news broadcasts. (The New York Times run the story on page A-12.) Comedians had a field day.
Beyond the sheer absurdity (“killer rabbit?”), the assertion that Carter did not strike the rabbit with the intent to kill it was transformed into a metaphor for his weakness in office. Three prime ministers, a king, and heads of large U.S. corporations were all allegedly queried about their perceptions of Carter’s response. Conservative columnist George Will reportedly told associates that Carter’s weak response to the attacking rabbit created the climate that allowed Iranian dissidents to believe they could attack the U.S. embassy with impunity and columnist Robert Novak later equally attributed the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan to this incident. Jerry Falwell weighed in that in the Book of Revelation swamp rabbits are associated with Satan and Carter should have summarily killed it. On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders noted that Carter had only himself to blame: If he had not sold the U.S.S. Sequoia, the presidential yacht in a fit of populist cost-saving excess, he would not have been in that small boat.
Closer to home, his disbelieving staff insisted that rabbits couldn’t swim let alone threateningly approach a person. To disapprove them, Carter asked the White House photographer who had been seated ashore to produce the photos above. At first, Powell refused to release it because it would have fanned “the rabbit controversy” further. The media ran with the story for a week, and tThe photo was finally released by the Reagan administration and now you can easily access it through Carter Library.