President: From the Origins of the Word to a Crazy Rabbit Attack

Email a Friend
From and

In honor of President's Day, we take two historical looks at the American presidency. 

The first is a look at the word "president" itself—it's as much a lesson in etymology as in history. Following the Revolutionary War, there were questions over what title to give to the new republic’s first leader. Ultimately, the word “president” was decided, a title that offered little power and referred to someone who presides over a meeting—a way, the founders thought, that would keep the leader from thinking of himself as kingly. 

Mark Forsyth, author of "The Etymologicon" and "The Horologicon," looks back the word's humble origins and traces just how it came to have the heft it has today.

Jimmy Carter's "Killer Rabbit" Debacle

How did a small angry mammal change the course of history? The answer lies with the 39th president of the United States.

Jimmy Carter’s encounter with an angry swamp animal in the spring of 1979 lasted only a moment. But it played a key role in derailing Carter's hopes for a second term, and changed the way American presidents have managed their image since then.

The story begins in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was unknown on the national stage, despite his compelling resume. Walter Cronkite summed up Carter's credentials this way: “He's a peanut farmer, Baptist Deacon, 11-year Navy veteran and a nuclear engineer.”

Carter beat Gerald Ford that year, but he got to the White House and found a country in turmoil. As Ohio University history Professor Kevin Mattson explains, there was "an enormous gas crisis," inflation and "numerous foreign policy issues that he's finding difficult to handle."

The most significant foreign policy issue, the Iran-Hostage Crisis, came in 1979. Yet, WNYC reporter Jim O'Grady says that President Carter's bizarre encounter with a crazed swimming rabbit on a Georgia lake crystallized an emerging sense that Carter was a man in over his head.

Click here to listen to O'Grady's full report and to hear the "I Don't Want a Bunny Wunny" song by Tom Paxton.