U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Swamp Rabbit Blues

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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. That Carter’s staff didn’t believe the story is, as you mention, sad and pathetic, and I hadn’t recalled that fact. When Carter first ran for the presidency in 1976, his mantra (or one of them) was “I’ll never lie to you” — where “you” meant the American electorate. This was a line he used in the Democratic primaries (and maybe also the general election, though I mostly remember it from the primary campaign). Enough of the electorate bought the line to elect him in ’76, but apparently his own staff didn’t, at least in this instance. It’s arguably kind of a — is synecdoche the right word? or maybe just metaphor — for the arc of his presidency.

  2. A fascinating anecdote raised to allegory?
    I don’t remember this event but it appears so quaint, so unassuming, so not 2018! What a contrast the Carter Presidency is with the current Liar in chief…introspective, religious, stoic…whose certitude is challenged over such an innocent but weird event. Just seeing a president alone in a fishing boat and imagining secret service and a cameraman lurking on the shore looks weird. Wouldn’t the secret service also corroborate the story?
    I would imagine a similar weird event today would be kept quiet by handlers for fear of unexpected repercussions…a certain truthfulness being the casualty. Contrast that with the unhinged “authenticity” of the present dolt-ocracy.

  3. Thanks guys. I didn’t stick the landing on this piece. Should have just ended with, “Times sure have changed.” But I’m glad you picked up on the point anyhow. This whole story is a quaint tale from another time, when Americans would not tolerate a whiff of corruption in the executive branch, and when the littlest narrative emanating from the White House was fact-checked and challenged. Of course it was also a time when “the dignity of the office” of the President was not something people were sure they could believe in any more — not because of Carter (though remember Billy Carter and all the mockery Jimmy took for being a hick from the sticks), nor because of Ford (though between the pratfalls and the pardon for Nixon, he didn’t help himself any), but because of Nixon and Watergate and the Pentagon Papers and the whole ball of bull.

    But if the dignity of the office took a ding in the 1970s, I don’t even know how to describe what’s happening now — not just the dignity of the Executive Branch sullied almost beyond repair, but the international reputation and influence of the United States. Just immolated, evaporated, gone. It has sickened me every single day.

    To watch these fools gleefully squander and squash every norm, every principle, every ideal that makes it possible to preserve and reform government of the people, by the people, for the people, all while some “base” of 30-40% of the electorate stupidly cheers it all on — it is a nightmare.

    I honestly believe watching this happen in and to the country I love is taking years off my life.

  4. Quite frankly, this piece left me wanting more. As a consumer of history, I want to learn things that I do not already know. As Professor Burnett, the author of the piece, states, “Times sure have changed.” Yes they have. I need some explanation of why a public which was so cynical of politicians and intolerant of corruption would in matter of months turn a blind eye to the plethora of scandals that blossomed during the Reagan administrations. Was it scandal fatigue after the ABSCAM sting? Was it because of differences between the two parties? As Paul Kern noted, the rabbit attack is a “fascinating anecdote.”

    Secondly, I find, Jimmy Carter one of the more fascinating political figures of the recent past. How does a man who was elected to the Georgia legislature as a racial moderate end up running one of the most racist campaigns for governor in 1970? His campaign slogan was lifted directly from George Wallace. His slogan “our kind of man,” was an appeal to the white working classes who opposed integration. Carter eagerly sought out the endorsement of segregationist Lester Maddox, campaigned at segregated private schools, and won the governorship of Georgia as the “white man’s candidate.”

    Although his governorship was by no means as reactionary as his campaign rhetoric, Carter wasn’t above engaging in culture war appeals. Governor Carter’s reaction to the sentencing of Lt. Calley for his war crimes in the My Lai massacre was to ask Georgians to “honor the flag” as Calley had done and leave their headlights on in support. While running for President, Carter mused that the Vietnamese refugees might be better off somewhere in Asia than emigrating to America. During the Democratic primaries in 1976, Carter got in hot water for a remark made in an interview, “I see nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained. I would not force a racial integration of a neighborhood by government action.” A few days later, in an attempt at damage control, Carter explained, “What I say is that the government ought not to take as a major purpose the intrusion of alien groups into a neighborhood simply to establish their intrusion.” Wow.

    Did Carter cynically embrace these positions to advance his political career or was he sincere? I admire his post-Presidential career. He was done good works and has eschewed the cash grab that is fashionable among ex-presidents of both political parties.

    • The questions you’ve asked about Carter are worth asking. Unfortunately, lack of time precludes me from taking a real stab at an answer, and in any case there are others more qualified to offer answers. I’d forgotten what Carter as governor said about Calley; that’s really inexcusable, as are some of the other remarks mentioned.

      As someone who cast his first vote in a presidential election in 1976 and was a fervent supporter of Fred Harris in the Dem primary, Carter’s winning the nomination was a crushing disappointment to me. (I can’t even remember at this remove whether I voted for Carter against Ford in the general election or for a third-party candidate, but if I voted for Carter, which I think I probably did, it was with a total lack of enthusiasm.) Historians are probably still chewing over and debating how to rate his presidency (he’s not going to be anywhere near the top ranks anyway), but I suspect there is a consensus that his post-presidential years have been the best, most useful part of his career.

  5. Brian, if you’d like to write a guest post exploring these questions, I’d be very glad to run it here at the blog.

    As for this — “As a consumer of history, I want to learn things that I do not already know” — I’m sure that’s true for all who consider themselves consumers of history. However, as I learned from talking with my younger friend, who is also a professional historian, this emblematic anecdote from the Carter administration is not universally well-known, and its salience as a contrast to our current moment recommended it as the subject for a rather quick-and-easy blog post.

    On that last point — I hate to break it to longtime readers who may have more exacting standards, but I am a same-day, one-draft blogger. With very rare exceptions, I don’t work on posts ahead of my posting day, and I certainly never work on multiple drafts. Like I said in a comment above, had I spent a little more time on this one, or just let it sit for 20 or 30 minutes before posting it, I would have come up with a better closing line. But this is a blog, and first drafts from a practiced hand are usually good enough to prompt discussion, which is my primary aim here. Minus a few fallow periods while dissertation, recovering from illness, or planning a conference (which felt an awful lot like a chronic illness some days!), and minus a few really awfully conceived posts, I’ve managed to provide pretty decent new content here on the regular for six years now. Not bragging, not asking for a round of applause. Just sayin’ — WYSIWYG.

    And I will reiterate what I said above: I would be delighted to run a post or a series of posts on (re)appraising Carter’s political career and how it fits in with other narratives about the ’70s/’80s, from you or anybody else interested. In fact, I think that could make for a very engaging roundtable if a few folks would care to participate.

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