Streams

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

Monday, February 17, 2014

WNYC

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.

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Comments [20]

Chuck von Schmidt from Suffolk County

I always believed the story and was appalled at the spin put on it. Around the same time as this incident I was keeping rabbits and had to turn one loose in the yard. He became an attack rabbit, charging and bouncing off of any male who came in the yard.

Feb. 19 2014 05:40 PM
Frank exNYer from mid-west

Comments here are much better than the story. Though I am in my 70s, don't think I ever heard about this bunny thing before. Dopey song... wouldn't want to be in an audience and be expected to sing along. The one about Nixon's secretary and the tape recording is heads and heels above the pointless bunny ditty. Also, kinda tame interview with Paxton. Why didn't the reporter make it clear to Paxton that the slant of the piece was to claim this incident had a significant effect on Carter's future? Why not get Paxton's take on his supposed part in assisting Reagan replace Carter, who he "always liked?" Paxton seems clueless about it having any effect. Was the reporter afraid Paxton might think the story's POV was silly?

Feb. 18 2014 06:45 PM
Frank exNYer from mid-west

Comments here are much better than the story. Though I am in my 70s, don't think I ever heard about this bunny thing before. Dopey song... wouldn't want to be in an audience and be expected to sing along. The one about Nixon's secretary and the tape recording is heads and heels above the pointless bunny ditty. Also, kinda tame interview with Paxton. Why didn't the reporter make it clear to Paxton that the slant of the piece was to claim this incident had a significant effect on Carter's future? Why not get Paxton's take on his supposed part in assisting Reagan replace Carter, who he "always liked?" Paxton seems clueless about it having any effect. Was the reporter afraid Paxton might think the story's POV was silly?

Feb. 18 2014 01:39 PM
Edwardus Superbus

Yes, each incoming administration by protocol must retain the policy of the former and at times pursue a policy which may not be popularly embraced by the people who voted him in. I can list so many over several presidencies including the present. I think Syrian debacle may be the most ill-advised involvement. Egypt was and is still a no win for USA. Libya will be a subject for future regrets as I am sure history will be very unkind with the decision to do away with Ghaddaffi. Despite his oft misguided and senseless altercations, he often offered a balance of sensibility. He surrendered his nuclear stockpile when he saw it was not useful to own one and above all he did not allow Al Ghaida( pardon my spelling) to operate in Libya. But in our wisdom we backed his removal, I did not understand.

Feb. 18 2014 12:52 PM
colin from Crown Heights, Brooklyn

I don't really understand what's so awful about this story. It was a funny incident - obviously the Carter & the White House agreed. Whether it hurt his image in public opinion does not mean that this story is "stupid" or mean-spirited".
While covering more serious stories such as the Iran-Contra scandal is certainly welcome and important, covering these smaller stories is no less so. If WNYC & NPR failed to cover such a wide range of stories from the groundbreaking and heart-rending to the small, and richly detailed anecdotes personal-interest pieces, they would cease to be such an important and enjoyable news organization.

Feb. 18 2014 07:46 AM
stanchaz from Brooklyn, oh Brooklyn

You see what you want to see.
Witness Fox Faux News.
And, it could have been rabid...

Feb. 18 2014 12:42 AM
Sherry from Manhattan

Slow news day? Nobel prize winner, peace maker, and an early advocate of cutting down of fossil fuels--and this is what you come up with? A waste of air time.

Feb. 17 2014 09:36 PM
Charles from Tribeca

It's much safer for media to report and blame the outcome of a election on a rabbit story rather than the secret and high treason deal Reagan/Bush negotiated with the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the election. It's really embarrassing that WNYC chose to air such crap. You need a editor?

Feb. 17 2014 06:14 PM
Nancy L Adams from New York

As I recall, it had a lot more to do with the general economic malaise of the country, the interest rate environment (commercial loans at 18%, mortgage loans at 15%), bank failures and the Iran hostage situation. The rabbit incident certainly didn't help, but don't give it more weight than it deserves.

Feb. 17 2014 05:03 PM
Timothy Mac Aren from New York.

President Carter is one of the finest human beings of the history of Humanity, and the insidious campaign against him is simply cruel.
I tend to think that those smearing him hate America, since President Carter did so much for our country (and for Humanity); if we consider 9/11 a collateral consequence of the Middle East state of in-Humanity, imagine how many other 9/11s would have happened if Egypt continued fighting with Israel.
Instead, President Carter obtained the Peace Accord, Sinai went to Egypt, and he is hated by our "free Press" because of that.

Feb. 17 2014 02:43 PM
buddy from NJ

He was getting wise to that mid eastern special interest lobby group in Washington and the manipulation of US foreign policy there, so he had to be smeared. He's still speaking out on Apartheid in that special mid east country,so the powers that be will not let up on him.
WNYC is just an enabler!

Feb. 17 2014 12:23 PM
Tom from Summit, NJ

Oddly, while the article spins this as the first big example of where the presidency recognized the need for image management, it is probably more important because of what it says about the media. While there is a history of the media abusing its power and constitutional protections to creating news out of nothing for ratings and attention, this may be the first time that the media turned that power on the president full-bore, essentially wrecking a president's image. Certainly, when a president makes a controverial decision, or (to be faithful to the period) commits a felony, the press should make a big deal of it, but whether it was FDR's wheelchair or Kennedy's womanizing, it was once understood that there was a line - the media should stick to news. This incident emboldened the media to ignore its responsibility to educate, inform, and mediate public debate and simply chase ratings at all costs. If you wonder how Fox News and MSNBC came about, this article is (contrary to the purposes of its writer) chronicles the US's first step down that road.

Feb. 17 2014 11:09 AM

I suppose those who get all their news from TV, yet still vote, could be swayed by th way in which this story was reported. But as one with a good memory, especially of those days, one must realize that that was a time of reporter's zeal. Watergate and th fall of a presidency was still fresh on everyone's minds, particularly young journalists all of whom wanted to be th next Woodward-Bernstein. 24 hour cable news was upon us, all of us boomers with all kinds of energy were entering and or firmly into adulthood. Not long after this incident with th wild rabbit, President Carter entered a 10 K race where he collapsed from overheating. Those with little experience 'racing' in th summer months have this happen to them far more often than reported, but here was th President and... Anyway, he was fine afterwards and he even presented awards out to th finishers but th damage was already done.
I've often commented that I've found a lot in common between Presidents Carter and Obama, in that it seems th two of them give th American public too much credit for intelligence and decency; such that reason and logic will win th day for those like themselves and th greater good in th long run. Boy are they ever so WRONG!

Feb. 17 2014 10:54 AM
tom murphy

"We believe you Mr. President, but I threw a bunny in the pool to check it out!"

Feb. 17 2014 10:07 AM
dlm

The idea that the rabbit story was a turning point for politicians controlling their image is absurd. FDR could not walk, yet the press never published images of him in a wheelchair. The media which even than was Democrat controlled went along with the stage craft and only photographed him after he had been propped into position. The liberal media hated Ford, so when he tripped getting off a plane - the picture was plastered across every front page in the country. Politicians and the media have always been aware of how image effects opinion. That is why having BIG media in their corner has helped the Democrat party. The real story here is how the media are still upset that Carter refused to listen to them and repeatedly brought up the rabbit story to the point of releasing photos. The press did not want to put those photos out there - Carter insisted. Carter was too religious to be as loved by the media establishment as Obama. But his biggest sin was destroying his own image no matter how hard the press tried to stop him.

Feb. 17 2014 09:34 AM
roberta robinson

It is a sad state of affairs when the public can be swayed by such an incident and use it to judge a man's qualifications. What a disgusting display of stupidity. No wonder corporations are running congress,the white house, education and anything else those greedy CEO's can get their hands on. I will bet there is so much more we don't know about. The country is in a total mess, we let people like the Kock brothers pay and sway. This is supposed to be America, land of the free? Not any more.

Feb. 17 2014 09:26 AM
Gerald Fnord from Palos Verdes, Ca

On the scale of what we will be permitted to elect---including our limitations as an image-besotted, rationalism-deriding, over-complacent electorate (complacent on the Right with small but real privileges from skin and some money or some notional salvation, on the Left with either milk-and-water Band-Aids™ or an onanistic radicalism that wallows in the luxury of never having any actual power and so were never forced into reality-testing)...I think we could have done worse, and in fact have since him---Obama might be his equal, but perhaps I can't see that because I have a bias against even moderate Republicans (as the first black President was fated to be, as surely as the first Jewish President will be Episcopalian).

Feb. 17 2014 09:20 AM
David A. from Brooklyn

He was wonderful, wasn't he? Not. I remember Presidential Directive 59 (I think that was the number) which fine-tuned preparations for protecting the president and his family in case of nuclear war. Taking care of #1 I guess. I remember runaway inflation. I remember his dismissal of income and asset inequality and the effects of stagflation on the working class as part of the inevitable unfairness of life. I recall him as the the first of a long stream of presidential hopefuls who would come to the South Bronx to make a statement about urban poverty and then do nothing about it. Did he have to deal with a Republican congress? No. He had to deal with Khomeni and the Iranian Republican Guard only because he, like his predecessors, had backed the Shah of Iran (a horrible, torturing, murderous Assad-like fascist) to the hilt. Help to the Sandinistas? Don't make me laugh-- he was up to his eyeballs in support of Somoza. During the 1970s the US was involved in horrible fascist governments all over Latin America: Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Guatamala, El Salvador. (Of course we were-- we installed them!) Did US support for these murderers vanish from 1977-1981? Right. Now he's a nice old man who builds houses for poor people. Back then, he was one of the butchers of the world.

Feb. 17 2014 09:01 AM
JOHN ANDERSON from nyc

One of the stupider, more mean-spirited stories you people have ever run. never mind that it was done by reporters who sounded as if they had to look Jimmy Carter up to find out who he was. what was the point?

Feb. 17 2014 08:55 AM
APRIL from MANHATTAN

CAPS FOR BAD EYES. IGNORANT CITY REPORTERS AND SONG WRITERS DIDN'T, AND STILL DON'T SEEM TO KNOW IF AN ANIMAL WHICH SHOULD RUN AWAY, COMES TOWARDS YOU, THAT ANIMAL PROBABLY HAS RABIES. CARTER BEHAVED CALMLY, AS A WELL INFORMED MAN. INSTEAD OF MOCKING CARTER, THE SONGWRITER AND OTHER MEDIA SHOULD HAVE USED IT AS A TEACHABLE MOMENT ABOUT RABIES. WHICH CAN BE FATAL, AND SHOTS REQUIRED ONCE BITTEN ARE EXTREMELY PAINFUL. HOW MANY HAVE UNNECESSARILY DIED SINCE PEOPLE HAD FUN AT THE PRESIDENT'S EXPENSE? THEN TEDDY KENNEDY, WITH THE SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT ALL KENNEDYS HAVE, MOVED IN. AFTER CHAPPAQUIDICK. (SP?) I'VE BEEN THERE AT NIGHT. IT'S EASY TO SEE HOW HE WENT OFF THE BRIDGE, NARROW AND NO RAILINGS. BUT EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO SEE HOW HE COULD FIND IT NECESSARY TO RUN FOR MILES TO TALK TO POLITICAL CONSULTANTS WHEN A HOUSE WAS PERHAPS FIVE TO TEN YARDS AWAY. INSTEAD, HE COULD'VE THOUGHT FIRST ABOUT THE YOUNG WOMAN'S LIFE INSTEAD OF HIS POLITICAL CAREER. A BIT WORSE THAN BONKING A BUNNY, BUT, HEY, HE WAS A KENNEDY. THEN MANY OTHERS PILED ON, INCLUDING JERRY BROWN. SPLITTING THE VOTE MORE AND MORE. DISCLOSURE: MY EX WORKED ON CARTER'S CAMPAIGN, WAS TREASURER OF THE DNC, THEN IN THE WHITE HOUSE UNDER CARTER. WE MOVED TO NYC FOR HIM TO RUN CARTER'S CAMPAIGN HERE IN '79. WHEN ANDY YOUNG, UN AMBASSADOR, (AN AFRICAN AMERICAN, ALONG WITH A BLACK WOMAN AS HEAD OF THE EDUCATION DEPT CARTER BEGAN), DECLARED ISRAEL SHOULD NEGOTIATE WITH THE PLO, THE SECRET SERVICE TOLD US TO GO OUT THE BACK DOOR, BUT IN OUR WALK UP THERE WAS NONE. PROTESTERS IN FRONT OF CARTER HEADQUARTERS, THE ADL AND OTHER PRO ISRAEL GROUPS YELLED FOR MY EX TO COME OUT. IN BROOKLYN, JEWS THREW STONES AT CARTER SOUND TRUCKS.

CARTER PUT A SOLAR PANEL ON THE WHITE HOUSE THE ROOF. TOLD US TO TURN DOWN OUR THERMOSTATS. HE TRIED TO GIVE AID TO THE SANDANISTAS, WHO THEY REJECTED IT, NEEDING US AS THE EVIL EMPIRE. IF HE'D DONE WHAT ANY RESPECTABLE PRESIDENT WOULD HAVE: LAUNCH A FULL SCALE MILITARY INVASION OF IRAN TO GET OUR HOSTAGES, HE PROBABLY WOULD'VE WON REELECTION. OBAMA TOOK AN EXTRA COPTER AFTER CARTER LOST ONE OF HIS IN A RESCUE ATTEMPT. WALTER CRONKITE'S COUNTDOWN PROBABLY DID MORE HARM TO CARTER THAN THE BUNNY STORY. AND HE SHOULD HAVE CALLED HIMSELF JAMES NOT JIMMY. HIS BOOK, "PEACE NOT APARTHEID" IS NOW PROVEN PRESCIENT. LAST I HEARD HIM SPEAK OF THAT BOOK, HE EMPHASIZED THE "NOT"!!! PEOPLE WERE GOING TO PROTEST AGAINST HIM AT A UNIVERSITY HERE. I DECIDED TO WEAR A SIGN SAYING "BLASTED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS!" BUT I'M OLD AND TIRED.

Feb. 17 2014 08:47 AM

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