Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Attack on a President - thirty years ago

Let us remember that this day, April 20th, 2009, is the thirtieth anniversary of a dastardly attack upon a US president.

The story has its origins in 1975, when the film Monty Python And The Holy Grail was released upon an unsuspecting world. It rapidly became (and has remained) a cult classic. In particular, the savage Rabbit of Caerbannog and its nemesis, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, have entered the English language as catch-phrases in their own right. Let's refresh our memories, shall we?

Yes, that's them. (Snicker!)

Anyway, fast-forward to 1979. President Jimmy Carter had gone fishing in or near his home town of Plains, Georgia. The Straight Dope describes what happened next.

He was fishing from a canoe in a pond when he spotted the fateful rabbit swimming toward him. It was never precisely determined what the rabbit's problem was. Carter, always trying to look at things from the other guy's point of view, later speculated that it was fleeing a predator. Whatever the case, it was definitely a troubled rabbit. "It was hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared and making straight for the president," a press account said.

The Secret Service having been caught flatfooted--I'll grant you an amphibious rabbit assault is a tough thing to defend against--the president did what he could to protect himself. Initially it was reported that he had hit the rabbit with his paddle. Realizing this would not play well with the Rabbit Lovers Guild, Carter later clarified that he had merely splashed water at the rabbit, which then swam off toward shore. A White House photographer, ever alert to history's pivotal moments, snapped a picture of the encounter for posterity.

President Carter discourages a pirate rabbit (upper corner) (click to enlarge)

The pirate perpetrator, enlarged

OK, not one of the shining moments of Carter's career, but so far not a major train wreck, inasmuch as nobody outside the White House knew anything about it. Jody Powell took care of that problem the following August when he told the rabbit story to Associated Press reporter Brooks Jackson over a cup of tea. Powell ought to have known that you cannot tell anything to reporters in August because there is nothing else to write about and they will make any fool thing into a front page scandal. Which is exactly what happened. The Washington Post put the bunny story on page one complete with a cartoon takeoff of the famous "Jaws" movie poster entitled "Paws." The media ran with the story for a week, the worst aspect from Carter's perspective undoubtedly being the columnists, who basically all said, yeah, it's just a rabbit, but it shows you the kind of president we've got here. The administration refused to release the photos, although I seem to recall that Reagan's people later found and leaked them. Carter's subsequent drubbing at the polls was a foregone conclusion, hostage crisis or not. Lesson for life #1: if it moves, kill it. Lesson for life #2: if you can't kill it, for God's sake don't talk about it to the Associated Press.

There's more at the link.

Needless to say, the Jimmy Carter Rabbit Incident became headline news, and - perhaps inevitably - comparisons (none to be taken too seriously) were drawn between his encounter with Sylvilagus aquaticus and King Arthur's fight with the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog. Some political pundits see this incident as a contributing factor to Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Presidential election. Cartoonists across the USA rubbed their hands together in glee and called loudly for more paper and pencils. Saturday Night Live would twice make satirical reference to the incident, in 1989 and 2002.

Therefore, let us remember and celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of this incident with appropriate pomp and (not-too-solemn) ceremony. May I suggest rabbit stew?


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