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The Straight Dope

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What's the straight dope on Jimmy Carter's once being attacked by a killer rabbit? I hear there are actually photos of Carter swinging for his life at this rabbit, but his people refused to release them because "some facts about the president must remain forever wrapped in obscurity." What the hell is going on? --Donald Lilly, North Hollywood, California

Well, right now I'd say things are pretty quiet, which is about what you'd figure, seeing as how the killer-rabbit thing happened in 1979. Not that stories about feckless cracker presidents don't have their pertinence these days. But say what you will about Bill Clinton's PR problems, Jimmy Carter was in a class by himself. Nice man, but he was one president whose image a couple accusations from bimbos probably would have improved.

The rabbit incident happened on April 20, while Carter was taking a few days off in Plains, Georgia. He was fishing from a canoe in a pond when he spotted the fateful rabbit swimming toward him. It was never precisely determined what the rabbit's problem was. Carter, always trying to look at things from the other guy's point of view, later speculated that it was fleeing a predator. Whatever the case, it was definitely a troubled rabbit. "It was hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared and making straight for the president," a press account said.

The Secret Service having been caught flat-footed--I'll grant you an amphibious rabbit assault is a tough thing to defend against--the president did what he could to protect himself. Initially it was reported that he'd hit the rabbit with his paddle. Realizing this wouldn't play well with the Rabbit Lovers' Guild, Carter later clarified that he'd merely splashed water at the rabbit, which then swam off toward shore. A White House photographer, ever alert to history's pivotal moments, snapped a picture of the encounter for posterity.

Good thing too. Carter's own staff was skeptical when he told the rabbit story back at the White House. Some ventured the opinion that rabbits couldn't swim, didn't attack people, and sure weren't about to take on a sitting president, even if it was Jimmy Carter. Miffed, Jimmy ordered up a print of the aforementioned photo, but this failed to resolve the issue. The picture showed the president with his paddle raised, and there was something in the water, "but you couldn't tell what it was," an anonymous staffer was quoted as saying. The average politician would have said, goddamnit, I'm president of the United States, and I say it was a rabbit. But Carter was not that kind of guy. He ordered a blowup made, establishing at last that his attacker was, well, a bunny, or "swamp rabbit," to use press secretary Jody Powell's somewhat fiercer sounding term.

OK, not one of the shining moments of Carter's career, but so far not a major train wreck, inasmuch as nobody outside the White House knew anything about it. Powell took care of that problem the following August when he told the rabbit story to Associated Press reporter Brooks Jackson over a cup of tea. Powell ought to have known that you can't tell reporters anything in August--because there's nothing else to write about, so they'll make any fool thing into a front-page scandal. Which is exactly what happened. The Washington Post ran the bunny story on page one complete with a "Paws" cartoon takeoff on the famous Jaws movie poster. The media ran with the story for a week, the worst aspect from Carter's perspective undoubtedly being the columnists, who basically all said, yeah, it's just a rabbit, but it shows you the kind of president we've got here. The administration refused to release the prints, though I seem to recall that Reagan's people later found and leaked them. Carter's subsequent drubbing at the polls was a foregone conclusion, hostage crisis or not. Lesson for life number one: if it moves, kill it. Lesson for life number two: if you can't kill it, for God's sake don't talk about it to the Associated Press.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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