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President Jimmy Carter and the "killer rabbit"

The rabbit
The rabbit.
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Carter Library

April 20th, 1979

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. And even then it was a pleasant, lighthearted piece. Although he may not admit it now, I had the definite impression at the time that Brooks thought it was nothing more than a mildly amusing incident, too.

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.


It was a nightmare. The story ran for more than a week. The President was repeatedly asked to explain his behavior at town hall meetings, press conferences, and meetings with editors.

There was talk of a suit under the Freedom of Information Act to force release of the picture showing the President, paddle and rabbit in close proximity.

Shortly after the Reagan administration took office, they stumbled upon a copy of the picture -- apparently while searching for a foreign policy -- and reopened the old wounds by releasing it to the press.

Well - this is where I enter the story. I was 25 at the time the story broke, and I remember the furor over the incident. However, I can't recall ever having seen the aforementioned picture. Web searches turned up plenty of references to the story, but no images; the story unfortunately broke before Al Gore invented the Internet.

I contacted the friendly folks at the Jimmy Carter Library about the picture, not really expecting much help:

Greetings, Jimmy Carter Library folks. Is the infamous picture of President Carter being attacked by a rabbit while fishing available from the Library? I suspect this is a common question, and I also suspect that the standard answer is "No, and we wouldn't tell you if it were anyway." :-) Still - I figured it was worth a try.
To my amazement, I received this response:
Thank you for your photo inquiry of November 7, 2003. The 'killer rabbit' photo is available at the Library. An 8x10 color print costs $25.50: a b&w print costs $20.50. We require prepayment and will accept a credit card or a check made out to the National Archives Trust Fund.

Please contact us if we can be of further assistance.

After a few more exchanges, I wound up ordering a 300dpi TIFF on CD of this image:

The picture
President Carter and the swamp rabbit
President Carter and the swamp rabbit
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Carter Library
Click here to download the 3000 x 2254 JPEG image.

I'm grateful to the folks at the Carter Library for their cheerful cooperation. They have advised me that the picture is in the public domain, but they would like any usage to note that the picture is courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Library.

Note: If you wish to link to this image, please do me a favor and link to this page, and don't "deep link" to the image itself. Since the photo is in the public domain, you're welcome to copy it to your own server if you wish. It would be polite to credit the source.