It was late in the day on April 20, 1979, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter was enjoying a needed break from the pressures of the presidency. While vacationing at his farm in Plains, Georgia, he decided to take in some fishing and relax. Solo, he pushed off in a canoe onto a pond that was on his property.
All was peaceful until he noticed a large animal swimming toward his boat. As it swam closer, the president could see that it was a rabbit. But this rabbit was no sweet little cottontail bunny. This swimming rabbit was one of those big, “splay-footed things that we called swamp rabbits when I was growing up,” said Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, who also hailed from Georgia. (1)
Something was clearly wrong with this particular swamp rabbit. It made strange hissing noises, flared its nostrils, and gnashed its teeth. Not only that, but it soon became alarmingly clear to Carter that the wet and angry animal was determined to climb inside the boat with him!
Carter, in great distress, used his oars to shoo the obviously deranged animal away from the boat, splashing water at it. The animal eventually was deterred from climbing in with the president and swam away. Meanwhile, a White House staffer on shore snapped a photograph.
When Carter returned to the White House, he shared his story with a number of his aides, some of whom refused to believe that swimming rabbits exist. Carter ordered a print of the image and also an enlargement to prove his tale.
Unfortunately, months later, Jody Powell casually decided to share this mildly-amusing presidential yarn with a reporter for the Associated Press. The press went wild with the story. On August 29, 1979, The Washington Post ran it on the front page titled,
“President Attacked by Rabbit.”
Because the White House refused to release a photo of the incident, the newspapers came up with their own illustrations – spoofs. The Washington Post used a cartoon parody of the “Jaws” movie poster labeled “PAWS.”
The New York Times reported that the President beat back the rabbit with his oars. It became the president’s nightmare. For a full week, Carter had to explain his behavior at town hall meetings, press conferences, and meetings with editors. Carter repeatedly stated that he had not used his oars to beat the animal, but to splash water at him to back away.
The rabbit dust-up was incredibly damaging to the Carter presidency and was used by his political opponents to defeat him in the 1980 election. Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley says,
It just played up the Carter flake factor…. I mean, he had to deal with Russia and the Ayatollah and here he was supposedly fighting off a rabbit.”
(1) Powell, Jody. The Other Side of the Story. 1986