It was April 20, 1979. President Jimmy Carter was taking a few days off as his popularity was at an all time low and the nation was suffering a crisis of confidence. He merely wanted to do some fishing and relax a bit as he considered how he would handle the problems of his troubled presidency.
Alone in a canoe on a pond in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, Carter had no warning. The secret service were caught on shore, unable to come to his immediate defense. He first spotted the rabbit swimming towards him as he cast his line into the water. As it got closer, Carter could see the rabbit was troubled.
"It was hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared and making straight for the president." -- press account of the incident.
Carter was at first said to have fought off the attacking bunny with one of his canoe paddles. He later changed the story, so as not to offend animal rights activists, to state that he used the paddle to "splash water" at the rabbit and frighten it off. The rabbit is said to have made for shore after its "splash fight" with the president.
A White House photographer took a snapshot of the incident. For Carter, it was a lucky photograph. Carter's staff refused to believe the tale. They took time from their busy schedules to inform Carter that rabbits did not swim, were not known to attack people and knew better than to so much as approach a United States President with secret service agents pacing along the shoreline.
Jimmy Carter was aggravated and annoyed. He ordered prints of the photograph and had it enlarged to show detail. The rabbit was but a blur, moving too fast to be recognized.
The story was kept quiet, as something of a running joke amongst the White House staff. That came to a screeching halt as Carter's press secretary Jody Powell leaked the story to an Associated Press reporter, Brooks Jackson, in August. The story caught fire and spread through the press like a bizarre new strain of the black plague. Powell was simply trying to explain his belief that the attacking rabbit was some kind of "swamp rabbit" and not a lethargic, breeding variety rabbit. The story even spawned a cartoon on the front page of the Washington Post depicting Carter and the rabbit as "Paws" in the style of the movie "Jaws."
Some believe the rabbit story was as much responsible as the Iran hostage crisis for the poor showing Carter had in his re-election campaign. As humorous as the story was to people at the time, it also showed Carter in a light that undermined his presidential power. In the midst of the Cold War do you want a president who gets attacked by bunnies?
In retrospect, it would make an interesting study to put all presidents, past and present, in a canoe and subject them to a vicious rabbit attack... and see which president handles the crisis best...