I was talking to a friend the other day about my “U.S. Culture since 1970” class. “Yep,” I said, “today’s the day I talk about that time Jimmy Carter was out fishing in a boat and got attacked by a rabid rabbit.”
“What?!” my friend said. (He is a couple of decades younger than me.)
“Yeah,” I said. “The rabbit came swimming towards the boat, and I think the Secret Service had to beat it to death with an oar or something.”
That’s how I remembered it, anyhow. The real story is much less exciting and much more sad.
You can read all about “the Jimmy Carter rabbit incident” on Wikipedia, where there is a dedicated article chronicling this great moment in Presidential history.
As you can see, the incident was neither as exciting nor as violent as I had remembered it – no actual rabbits were harmed in the making of this strange-but-true adventure, but an oar was wielded in monitory fashion by the President himself, who was alone in the fishing boat.
What is so sad about this story is that when Carter returned from his fishing trip and told the White House staffers that he had to scare away a rabbit that was swimming towards his boat, they didn’t believe him. Just as a general rule, that is the most agonizing possible plotline for any story, large or small: to tell the truth and not to be believed. It took photographic proof from a White House cameraman to convince Carter’s staff that he wasn’t making it all up.
That doesn’t speak very well of Carter’s relationship with his staffers, or of their ability to judge (or maybe to handle) his earnestness. Remember, this was James Earl Carter telling the story. Was ever a President more sincere? I mean, this is the man who a few weeks later would go on national TV and told America the truth as he saw it: that the nation was suffering from a crisis of confidence and would have sacrifice together to get through the energy shortage.
Indeed, the story of the rabbit and the story of the “malaise speech” are of a piece, emblems of the nadir of Carter’s presidency, the summer of 1979. The thwarted rabbit attack happened in April, and Carter’s honest account was initially dismissed by his own staffers (no respect!) because they’d never heard of a rabbit that could swim. The malaise speech was delivered in mid-July. The cabinet shake-up happened in early August. And then, at the very end of August, Carter’s press secretary mentioned the rabbit attack, with which the national press had a field day. Here was this bumbling, indecisive President – no Theodore Roosevelt, he – whose outdoor adventures consisted of being frightened into panic by a too-aggressive bunny.
What made the story even worse at the time – and makes it a cringeworthy read, even now – is that the White House refused to release any images of the incident to the press. So of course journalistic outlets went with their own illustrations. Finally, after the story already had legs, the White House released the photographic evidence of the incident in question.
Why be so needlessly secretive and diffident about providing a picture to accompany a story that kept getting bigger in the telling? Well, maybe that recursive amplification of the incident in the imagination of the American public was part of the reason to hold back the image. For the President’s actions sounded more decisive than they looked. You see him slightly twisted in his seat, a feeble tail of a splash settling down around the boat’s stern, and a swamp hare booking it in the other direction.
Maybe the diffidence had to do with the idea that the President deserved some privacy, the right to go fishing in peace. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the administration felt Americans ought to take the White House at its word. If the Press Secretary confirms that President Carter shooed away a dogpaddling rabbit, then that ought to suffice.
But in the post-Watergate era, this unbelievably trivial story was apparently too much to believe. So the White House finally provided photographic evidence that the President’s aide, though he may have made the story sound a little more exciting in the retelling of it, was actually telling the truth.
It’s a quaint little story, now, isn’t it? A President makes a claim that sounds a little off, a little unbelievable, to his staffers, so they question him. Months later, when one of the staffers mentions the anecdote in passing, an unruly press, now acclimated to challenging neat narratives coming from the White House, demands proof. And a public who has already had it up to here with the President’s apparent ineptitude finds yet another reason to regard him as ridiculous.
Jimmy Carter had a one-term tenure in the White House, and perhaps that’s all the chance he deserved. But as presidents go, he was a man of probity. To prove to the American people that he could be trusted to put the nation’s interests first, he sold his peanut farm lest they fear he might use agricultural or commercial policies to personally enrich himself. Even though the photo of the President and the wild-eyed rabbit made Carter look even more timid than the story made him sound, the White House released the image, because the public, via a dogged free press, demanded proof.
These days, the whole scenario sounds almost too strange to be believed.