Today is the 30th anniversary of a minor, but telling historical event: President Jimmy Carter's fight with a "killer rabbit":
On a fishing trip in Plains, Georgia, President Carter had an encounter with a "swamp rabbit". This seemingly trivial event was seized upon by the press and became a sort of Rorschach test of the Carter presidency: reporters and commentators saw in this story whatever they wanted to see in Carter's administration. Jody Powell, Carter's press secretary, described the affair in his 1986 book The Other Side of the Story:
It began late one afternoon in the spring of 1979. The President was sitting with a few of us on the Truman Balcony. He had recently returned from a visit to Plains, and we were talking about homefolks and how the quail were nesting and similar matters of international import.
Suddenly, for no apparent reason — he was drinking lemonade, as I recall — the President volunteered the information that while fishing in a pond on his farm he had sighted a large animal swimming toward him. Upon closer inspection, the animal turned out to be a rabbit. Not one of your cutesy, Easter Bunny-type rabbits, but one of those big splay-footed things that we called swamp rabbits when I was growing up.
The animal was clearly in distress, or perhaps berserk. The President confessed to having had limited experience with enraged rabbits. He was unable to reach a definite conclusion about its state of mind. What was obvious, however, was that this large, wet animal, making strange hissing noises and gnashing its teeth, was intent upon climbing into the Presidential boat.
The President then evidently shooed the critter away from his boat with a paddle. The scene was captured on film by a White House photographer.
The incident might have died of natural causes but for the fact that Powell himself later passed the story along to the press:
Several months later I was chatting with Brooks Jackson, one of the White House correspondents for the Associated Press, over a cup of tea, as I remember. For reasons that I still do not fully understand, I told him about the President and the rabbit. I was the one who leaked the killer rabbit story.
Although an experienced reporter, Brooks also failed to appreciate the significance of what he had heard. He did not rush to file an "urgent" story. In fact, he continued the conversation for some period of time and several more cups of tea. Not until the next day did he get around to sending this gripping account out over the wires to a waiting public.....
We were soon corrected. The Washington Post, exercising the news judgement that we in the White House had come to appreciate so keenly, headed the piece "President Attacked by Rabbit" and ran it on the front page. The more cautious New York Times boxed it on page A-12. That night, all three networks found time to report the amazing incident. But that was just the beginning....
Despite the fact that Carter succeeded in fighting off the rabbit, the incident was seem by many as a symbol of the fecklessness of his administration. I'm no great fan of President Carter's. But I don't think he was as bad a president as many people think. For example, he deserves credit for his support of airline and trucking deregulation, for initiating American aid to groups resisting Soviet rule in Poland and Afghanistan, and for assisting in the negotiation of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Carter also made many mistakes of course, and I'm glad he was defeated in 1980. To a large extent, however, he was the victim of extremely bad luck. His term in office coincided with several catastrophes that he mostly didn't cause, but took much of the political blame for: a deep recession, the fall of the Shah in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, among others. Carter's downfall epitomized the tendency of voters to blame the incumbent president for anything bad that happens on his watch, regardless of whether he caused it. Of course, Carter was not wholly blameless in these cases. His responses to the recession and the Iran hostage crisis were almost certainly far less than optimal, and tended to make a bad situation worse.
The "killer rabbit" incident was just one of many examples of Carter's extremely poor luck during his presidency. Of course, Carter's press secretary probably made the situation worse by telling the story to a reporter. It was a case of bad luck badly handled. In that sense, it really did epitomize the overall tenor of Carter's term in office.