When the President of the United States was attacked by a killer rabbit

Jimmy Carter Presidential Portrait

The President of the United States seems to have a mound of threats to contend with: Hostile nations…Terrorists…Angry voters…Congress… And, sometimes, rabbits. 

Yes, you read that correctly. Even the seemingly innocent rabbits can get in the way. At least, that’s what happened on one fine afternoon in Georgia, April 1979. The President that fell victim to the “killer rabbit” happened to be none other than Jimmy Carter. Already beleaguered by ballooning inflation, a hostage crisis in Iran, and a plunging popularity score, it seems as if Carter’s luck couldn’t have reached a lower point. 

Carter was on a small fishing trip in a lake near his residence in Georgia (he was on a brief holiday at the time, hence why he wasn’t in Washington). As he was paddling through the lake, he was interrupted by a “killer rabbit” swimming its way towards his boat. In response, Carter used his paddle to shoo the rabbit away. At that moment, the White House photographer was lurking around the lake, and seeing the rather comical scene in front of him, he shot a photo of Carter. That was that. The rabbit disappeared, Carter went home, and soon returned to business in the White House. He had his 1980 re-election campaign to focus on.

Photograph of the President Jimmy Carter rabbit incident
The photo taken by the White House photographer showing President Jimmy Carter chasing away a swamp rabbit in a boat in Plains, Georgia, 20 April 1979.
Credit: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library // Public Domain

Except in yet another blow to his fortune, the “photograph” mentioned above found its way into the press. Suddenly, a story that was hardly consequential, was the subject of late-night take shows, gossip magazines, and much fanfare. In the eyes of the public, the “killer rabbit” incident was yet more proof that Carter was meek, weak, and wimpy. What followed, was an onslaught of sensationalized chatter and mockery from the tabloids.

“Surely, getting attack by a rabbit was beyond the pale for the most powerful man on planet earth?” or even better, “how can our President defend us from the communists if he can barely fight off a rabbit in a lake?” 

Such questions, assumptions, and doubts quickly seeped into the pundit’s mouths and the people’s heads. In fact, much of the significance of this story came not so much from the mere event itself, but from the fact that an election was imminent. As hinted above, Carter was already facing a tough re-election battle. 

Owing to the oil crises of 1979, inflation was skyrocketing, and the economy was in a perilous state. Gas prices were soaring, queues at gas stations were growing longer than ever, and many people were soon struggling with daily life. Inevitably, this led to further dips in Carter’s popularity. Many of his voters had turned back on him in light of the endless disappointments that plagued his presidency. Considering this context, then, the killer rabbit incident was only going to accelerate his decline. As expected, it reinforced whatever perception the people had of Carter… as weak, vulnerable… (you get the idea).

Later in 1979, another crisis fell on Carter’s watch. This time, however, it was far less benign than a swimming rabbit. On the 4th of November 1979, shortly after the Iranian revolution, 63 American citizens were taken hostage by the new Anti-American regime. In response, Carter authorized Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to rescue American hostages that went missing in Iran. Unfortunately, a dust storm hit the crew, and two helicopters were not able to make it. As a result, the operation had to be called off. What was planned as a daring operation to rescue fellow Americans, ended as a grand humiliation instead. Predictably, the press, as well as the people, were not pleased. The failure of Eagle Claw further tarnished his reputation and painted him as a weak and spineless President. 

So, when election time arrived, and the campaign took off, things weren’t going to be easy for Carter. His rival competing for the Oval Office was Ronald Reagan. Sensing his luck, Reagan entered the campaign “guns-blazing” in a bid to exploit the poor perception the people held of Carter. Promising to learn from the “bonsai bunny” that attacked Carter, Reagan purported to return a sense of strength and vigor to the Presidency. Turns out, Reagan’s bid succeeded. On 4th November 1980, Reagan defeated Carter with a landslide margin. That day, Carter joined the small club of “one-term Presidents” and left the White House largely wounded and disgraced. 

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on inauguration day 1981
President-elect Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter ride in a limousine to the United States Capitol for the Inaugural ceremony in Washington, D.C. on the 20th January 1981.
Credit: National Archives // Public Domain

A staunch conservative, Reagan turned the tide in American politics and reversed many Carter-era reforms. From issues like the environment, welfare, and foreign policy, Reagan and Carter couldn’t have been further apart. As amazing as it sounds, upon one haphazard encounter with a rabbit, America’s history was changed forever. 

Later, when journalist Hoard Kurtz interviewed Carter and asked him about the rabbit incident, it turned out that much of the story was exaggerated. Far from being a “killer rabbit”, the little mammal was simply trying to run away from a bunch of hounds. What further sensationalized this story, was that many people were surprised that a rabbit could swim. As Carter mentions in his interview, he says that he received many letters from pet owners with rabbits, that threw them into pools and shockingly discovered that they could swim. 

Evidently, perceptions matter a great deal in politics, as poignantly taught by a “killer rabbit”. And, that rabbits can swim, too.

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