What was the deal with Jimmy Carter and the killer rabbit?

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Dear Cecil: 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


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Well, right now I’d say it’s pretty quiet, which is about what you’d figure, seeing as how the killer rabbit thing happened in 1979. Not that stories about feckless good ol’ boy presidents don’t have their pertinence these days. Say what you will about Bill Clinton’s PR problems, though, Jimmy Carter was in a class by himself. Nice man, but he was one president whose image a couple accusations from bimboes would have probably 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 flatfooted — 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, goddamit, I’m president of the United States and I say it was a rabbit. But Carter wasn’t 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. Jody 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 you can’t tell anything to reporters in August because there’s nothing else to write about and they’ll make any fool thing into a front page scandal.

Which is exactly what happened. The Washington Post put the bunny story on page one complete with a cartoon takeoff of the famous “Jaws” movie poster entitled “Paws.” 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 photos, although I seem to recall 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 #1: if it moves, kill it. Lesson for life #2: if you can’t kill it, for God’s sake don’t talk about it to the Associated Press.

Rabbit redux

Dear Cecil:

I have a theory that should put to rest this President Carter/killer rabbit thing once and for all. I propose that the president’s antagonist was not a rabbit but a nutria (Myocastor coypus). The world’s largest rodent, the nutria is semiaquatic with webbed hind feet and is very aggressive. Native to South America and valued for its durable fur, the nutria was introduced into the southern United States in the last century and quickly became a well-established pest species. A partially submerged nutria (a lightning-fast swimmer) would look very similar to a rabbit. Its lack of long, rabbitlike ears could easily be overlooked in the fog of battle.

I hope this serves to partially rehabilitate the much-maligned 39th president.

— Thomas Canaday, San Francisco, California

Cecil replies:

You think being attacked by the “world’s largest rodent” is an improvement? Then again, it had to give Carter a taste of what it would be like fending off Alfonse D’Amato.

Incidentally, the nutria isn’t the world’s largest rodent. The honor, such as it is, goes to the capybara, 110 pounds of pure ugly. Jimmy should count his blessings.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.