How Jimmy Carter's Face-Off with a Rabbit Changed the Presidency

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Of all the crises that President Carter faced in 1979 -- gas shortages, hostage-taking, runaway inflation -- his bizarre encounter with a crazed swimming rabbit on a Georgia lake was as damaging as any to his image. The incident crystallized an emerging sense that Carter was a man in over his head.

The view was disputable. Carter had gotten off to a strong start as president, especially with his Nobel Prize-winning achievement of forging the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. But by the time the "killer rabbit" story broke on a sluggish news day in August 1979, many of Carter's efforts to project himself as a forceful leader had fizzled or backfired.

Chief among those was his "Crisis of Confidence" speech, given on prime time TV in July. The public initially liked Carter's call to action -- "With God's help and for the sake of our nation, it is time for us to join hands in America" -- and gave him an 11 percent bump in the polls. But that was before Ronald Reagan and other rivals relabeled it the "malaise speech" and used it to portray Carter as a pessimist and a wimp.

(Jimmy Carter, leader of the free world, fends off attack by "killer rabbit." / Jimmy Carter Library and Museum)

Then came the backwoods mammal that approached Carter as he fished on a pond, hissing as it bore down on his boat. Carter, who'd grown up in the country, calmly used his paddle to splash water at the critter and scare it away. But a photo of the encounter that the White House unwisely released to the press made the president look somewhat comical and small. How was a guy who let a rabbit get the drop on him supposed to guard the U.S. from attack by the Soviet Union?

Pop culture erupted with mocking commentaries, cartoons and novelty songs. The best of that bunch was a song by Tom Paxton called, "I Don't Want A Bunny Wunny."

Click on the play button below to hear our interview with Paxton about the song.

And click on the play button at the top of this story to hear about the Reagan campaign's vow to learn from the "bonzai bunny" about not losing control of the presidential narrative over trivial issues. That led to the creation of the image-management machine that endures in The White House to this day. The story includes interviews with Brooks Jackson, the AP reporter who broke the story, and presidential historian Kevin Mattson.

Reporting contributed by Julia Wetherell.