No photo more neatly sums up the Carter presidency than the famous “Killer Rabbit” shot. It portrays president Jimmy Carter in a fishing boat in a river in Plains, Georgia. He is splashing and trying to scare away a small swamp rabbit which had been swimming towards the boat. According to White House staff members “the President beat back the animal with a canoe paddle.” Carter later countered this statement, by explaining that he merely splashed water at the rabbit. This did not help his case.
It was 1979 – the nation was undergoing the energy crisis, as well as a crisis of confidence. While at face value, this might seem to do little to with the attacker, it just so happened that a White House photographer chose to capture the moment on film, opening the doors for the ridiculing of Jimmy Carter. It turns out that it was the president’s trusted advisor, Jody Powell, who actually gave the story to the media. In Powell’s biography, he states that he accidentally shared the story over a cup of tea with Brooks Jackson, one of the White House Correspondents for the Associated Press. Jackson printed the piece later as a light hearted, pleasure piece, and Powell maintains that he had merely found the story be an amusing anecdote, and says that “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.”
The real problems began when the larger newspapers got wind of the story. The Washington Post would later run the headline “President Attacked by Rabbit” and print it on the front page accompanied by a cartoon parodying Jaws entitled Paws. The story was also published in the New York Times. According to Powell, “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.”
Carter was already not in high public favor, and this incident served only to highlight his weakness as an individual, which translated quickly into weakness as a leader. Where Theodore Roosevelt hunted bears and rhinos for sport, Carter could not even handle himself when dealing with a rabbit. Carter’s press account tried to justify Carter’s actions in the photo, by saying “[The rabbit] was hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared and making straight for the president.” Powell says that this was “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.”
Carter’s relationship with the media was never good; this photo only served to enhance what was already the public’s perception of Carter. This photo solidified Carter’s position as a weak, ineffectual leader, acting as the perfect symbolic representation of how the nation felt about his presidency. Carter’s biographer Douglas Brinkley summarized the situation best: “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.”