Killer rabbit story unfolded as President Carter sipped lemonade

Yarn that had a lighthearted start grew to nightmare for press secretary Jody Powell
Jimmy Carter's encounter with a swamp rabbit while fishing. (1979) Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

Jimmy Carter's encounter with a swamp rabbit while fishing. (1979) Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

One of the dangers in writing about events in which one played a role is that there inevitably comes the point where a decision must be made about how to deal with your own behavior. The decision is particularly difficult if the action in question may be seen by some as ill-advised, or even downright stupid.

We now come to such a point in this revisitation of the relationship between the Carter White House and the press.

The tragic incident to which I refer is the ''killer rabbit'' story.

It began late one afternoon in the spring of 1979. President Carter was sitting with a few of us on the Truman Balcony. He had recently returned from a visit to Plains, Ga., 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 remember 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. 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.

Had I been doing my job, I would have stopped the president at that moment, pointed out the dangers to him and his administration if such a story ever got out, and sworn him and all within reach of his voice to secrecy.

Sadly, I did nothing of the kind. What is worse, and it still makes my flesh crawl to think I could have been so foolish, I thought it was funny. Can you imagine such a thing? Faced with a mortal threat to the Carter presidency, I laughed. Nor, as painful as it is to admit, was that the full extent of my culpability in this matter. The worst is yet to come.

RELATED: "Jimmy Carter rabbit episode" from Today in Georgia history

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. 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 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.

The nation's capital was shocked, incredulous. At Georgetown dinner parties the conversation focused on little else.

Newspapers had fun with the killer rabbit story. This is a clipping of a small item in The Atlanta Constitution, Aug. 31, 1979. (AJC archives)

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What was to be done about a president with whom a rabbit would try to get into a boat? What did this startling, not to say worrisome, incident say about his fitness for office? What would the Russians think, not to mention the Cubans, the Ethiopians and SWAPO?

A few months later, columnist George Will reportedly told friends that the president's timid response to the attack he had shooed the rabbit away by splashing water at it with his paddle, rather than having the brute shot by the Secret Service had led directly to the assault on our embassy in Tehran.

Columnist Robert Novak claimed to have seen communications intercepts that proved the invasion of Afghanistan was also a direct result of the incident.

Mary McGrory let it be known that she considered the brandishing of the paddle to be a clear example of excessive force.

Joseph Kraft is said to have reported gravely that three prime ministers, a king, a deposed dictator, and the entire board of directors of ''big America'' with whom he was on the most intimate terms had called to discuss the implications of this fiasco.

The New Republic declared forthrightly that Carter's attempt to beat the rabbit to death with a boat paddle was an indication of what he would do to Israel if he was elected to a second term.

In similar fashion, the Boston Globe suggested that this aquatic incident would quickly drive memories of Chappaquiddick from the minds of American voters, thus clearing the way for their Teddy to reclaim the family estate on Pennsylvania Avenue.

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.

Almost four years later, I sat down for a chat with the political editor of a major regional newspaper and the first question he asked was about the killer rabbit story. He said he considered it to be the beginning of the end for the Carter administration.

This confession (I have never before been able to tell the whole sad story) has been a cleansing and uplifting experience. I feel now, as I write this, that a great burden of guilt and self-recrimination has been lifted.

Still, there is the desire to fit all this into some larger context. The best I have been able to do is to conclude that by August of 1979, if the president had been set upon by a pack of wild dogs, a good portion of the press would have sided with the dogs.

Copyright c. 1984 by Jody Powell William Morrow & Co. Inc.