Stories Jimmy Carter’s Rabbit

Lydia Millet

He came to see me at my Atlanta office, after his move back to Plains. It was a slow afternoon and the day’s sessions were already over when the Secret Service men stepped into my foyer. I wasn’t expecting company; my first thought when I opened the door on them—with their clean-cut hair, dark suits and earpieces—was hearing-impaired Witnesses.

Then I caught sight of that broad, down-home grin.

Our families went to the same church when we were boys, and we had Bible Study together. He was an avid student, hand always shooting straight up with the answers, while I spent most of the class lobbing spitballs at the back of a fat girl’s head. Our interests were different: One of us was strong and popular, the other was bookish, but it was a small town, and even though there were some differences between us we were thrown together often enough. We hung out, playing ball in the meadow behind the general store, or ran a Cowboys ’n Injuns racket in a rotting tree house. Typically I was a cowboy and Carter was one of the braves. One time, if I remember right, he was a squaw.

Anyway, after some neighborhood unpleasantness my parents moved the family to North Carolina. That happened when I was twelve, and contact between Jimmy and me ended.

Come 1981 I hadn’t seen the guy in nearly 50 years.

He wasn’t seeking me out in a professional capacity, he told me up front. Of course, if he hadn’t said that, the conversation would be privileged. No, he just wanted to get reacquainted. Was there someplace we could settle in for a chat?

We sat out on the roof of my building, which had a couple of chairs and a table. This was back before Carter became a hobbyist vintner, but he already liked his vino; I, too, was a bit of a connoisseur. My heart lifted when he handed me an Echézeaux, and I strode boldly through the glass sliders to my liquor cabinet for a corkscrew and goblets. As I turned from him, I recall a kind of imprint on my visual cortex: a former free-world leader leaning back in a chair behind me, his legs loosely crossed. President, I thought. President and waiting. I’d stayed pretty calm till then, but some kind of delayed shock took me. I got butterfingered and dropped a glass.

Left it there. You don’t squat and clean up shards in that situation.

Watching the glittery descent of airplanes in the sky, we cradled our drinks and kicked back. I let the burgundy soak my tongue as Ravi Shankar floated out through an open window; my office was, more’s the pity, next to a yoga studio. This was before I moved to my more upscale current location. Meanwhile, in the shared lobby—as I would notice a couple of minutes later on my way to the bathroom—his Secret Service detail was scanning dog-eared copies of New Age and Tantric Frontier.

I needed a second to settle my nerves. I had known Carter before, certainly, but back then he was just a skinny kid with big teeth, your basic Young Baptist Next Door. Myself, I already had a deep voice. I got to second base with Patty Evans while he was still singing like Tweety Bird. But now he wore a mantle of sorts. I had a good career myself, of course, but his credentials were hard to beat. When I looked at his face, media images clicked through my memory like cards in a shuffling machine. The guy had walked the corridors of power like Caesar or Napoleon, for Chrissake. So I have to admit my legs took on a liquid quality. A great vaulted hallway held them all, these massive, looming figures of men, and here was one of the monoliths in my office. Coming to me for help.

Because no one knocks on a psychologist’s door to sell Girl Scout cookies. Carter wanted something.

There was denial there, of course. There always is.

Carter told me he considered talk therapy to be “for folks with real problems.” And he purported to be free of these. For Carter matters of the psyche were matters of the spirit, and matters of the spirit found their resolution in the teachings of Jesus. Even when we were boys, Jimmy took his churchgoing to heart. Back then, of course, Baptists were more easygoing and not overly interested in politics.

He eased into the confab with a casual narration of his life post-commander-in-chief. He’d published two memoirs and was looking forward to starting work on a novel. I waited patiently as he yapped about Rosalynn and the kids; I was fairly sure he hadn’t sat in the limousine for three hours to offer up the Carter family CV.

“Why I came to see you, Bobby,” he said when the small talk wound down, “was I’m trying to take a deep look at myself these days. Yesterday and tomorrow. I look back at my life so far and I try to make a moral reckoning. Where have I been, Bob? And where do I want to go?”

“Makes sense,” I said, encouraging.

I took the liberty of pouring myself another glass of the burgundy. It was an excellent Echézeaux—a ’74, if I recall correctly, which carried a price tag in the triple digits.

“I’m not just looking at recent events, Bob. I’m looking into my character all the way back. And when I remember what we put you through, I feel badly. I truly do.”

It was then that my bladder put me on notice. In the cloying bathroom, thick with the sandalwood incense visited upon me by the yoga women, I popped a few codeine-laced Tylenol. My head was aching. Was it the spooks in the waiting room? Or was it Carter himself? I have an action practice: Clients know that with me the past is a springboard, not a quagmire. We don’t dwell on the mommies who didn’t love us enough. My clients are strictly proactive. I don’t often toot my own horn, but I’ve molded Fortune 500 executives out of acne-pocked office drones.

Important to steer the conversation in a positive direction. Carter wasn’t a client, but the same tactics applied.

I left the bathroom with my temples throbbing and was quickly frisked by a Secret Service agent, apparently concerned I might have stowed a firearm in the toilet tank. Outside on the roof I sat down again and had barely picked up my glass when Carter leaned forward earnestly and clasped my arm.

“Keeping quiet and letting the blame fall on your head. Standing by while your family was hounded out of town and your daddy put you away in that place. It was wrong, Bobby. Sinful and wrong.”

“I go by Robert these days, Mr. President,” I said. I had no use for the rehashing of childhood squabbles; mine is a forward vector. Strength and velocity.

“Robert. Of course. Listen here, Robert. I want to apologize. I’ve always felt distressed by what happened. I can only imagine what you must feel.”

Then it came to me. The end stage of the Carter presidency had been a time of low points, like the hostage crisis and Billygate. Those were the landmarks that showed up in the history books, but there were also the small, linchpin moments that turned the tide and got swept under the rug.

I’m talking about what happened with the swamp rabbit. The newspapers called it a killer.

The killer rabbit plowed through the water toward Carter’s boat in the spring of 1979. Carter was fishing alone on a pond at the time. Startled, he threatened the thing with his oar, splashing at the water to shoo it away. The vermin grudgingly changed its course. Not much of a story, but when it was leaked Carter was ridiculed for telling tall tales. People didn’t believe rabbits could swim, for one thing. But soon a White House photographer showed up with pictures of the scene that backed Carter up, showing a large, light-brown hare, red-eyed and dog-paddling, and Carter splashing the water’s surface a few feet from the animal in what looked like a feeble defensive posture.

The upshot: Carter was no longer a liar, but still a clown. Comic-strip spoofs of the episode appeared, one of them starring “Paws,” a sharklike rabbit menace.

The president had been unmanned.

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It was then that I had an inkling of what was going on. The killer rabbit had brought Carter to me.

“ . . . Never thought of you as the town bully myself,” he was saying. “You could be, ah, insistent, and you didn’t always know your own strength, but heck, Robert, that’s par for the—”

“The killer rabbit,” I interrupted.

“Pardon me?”

“It’s about the killer swamp rabbit,” I said. “Isn’t it. Why you’re here.”

Carter shook his head bemusedly, the vaguest hint of a smile playing about his lips. “Robert, I came to talk about you. And the wrong we boys did in letting you take the fall for us. In letting you alone be punished.”

A diversion. It’s hard for any guy to admit to his impotence.

Well, I kept at him. For a while, rather than face up to the lop-eared specter, Carter continued to claim interest in the incident that had led to my parents’ leaving Plains. He showed a single-minded determination to divert the conversation from its true purpose. I could see how, in your high-level talks, he could have been a tiger. Still, I cycled back to the rabbit. And finally my subtle handling opened the floodgates.

“Oh, all right. Trivial episode, relatively, but I’ll give you the story if you really want it.”

It wasn’t till after the Reagan inauguration, he said, when he went back to South Georgia, that he really thought about the rabbit incident. He had time, in Reagan’s early months, to read the jeering accounts; he had time to reflect that there had been nothing out of the ordinary in his behavior in the fishing boat. He had merely caught sight of an animal in the water and, surprised, jerked an oar in its direction. He’d done it the same way you might swat a fly. His train of thought—moving from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Warren Christopher—had been rudely broken. He realized what the animal was a split second later and lost interest. He had seen swamp rabbits before, mostly in marshes; they took to water readily, to escape from predators.

Two of the four rabbit species in Georgia, he said, swam well; only the cottontails couldn’t swim.

For a while, he said, he’d toyed with conspiracy theories. The Reagan strategists, after all, were lean and mean, unlike his own friendly posse of good ol’ boys with their antiquated notions of honor and straight shooting. He imagined far-fetched scenarios: James Baker creeping through the foliage with a phalanx of hungry coon dogs, scaring rabbits out of their hollows and chasing them toward the pond; Ed Meese, wearing oversize waders and a filthy baseball cap, pulling up to the waterline in a rickety truck with traps full of long-ears foaming at the mouth.

The thing was, said Carter with lazy good humor, he, unlike the Republicans, had long been a friend to the meek and the undefended. Heck, he had signed the Alaska Lands Act. And yet the rabbit had swum against him!

He laughed awkwardly. Clearly he was masking a wound that still ached. I had no doubt the rabbit had affected his conjugal performance.

I’d already put back a good part of the bottle; Carter had barely sipped. I needed a release valve, since my then-wife was attending twelve-step meetings that seemed to consist of a gaggle of hausfraus who had fastened like limpets to the notion that every man jack was a substance abuser. To hear them tell it, a lone Miller Lite in the hand of a spousal equivalent—I use the term advisedly, as there were several lesbians in the group—was the equivalent of a guided missile. Though only dimly aware of the words’ definitions, Debbie had armed herself to the teeth with jargon culled from these get-togethers. Terms like codependent and enabling were thickening the air like poison-tipped arrows.

“You wish you’d got it, don’t you,” I said.

’’I’m sorry?”

“The rabbit. Hit your mark, man. Instead of missing.”

Carter stared at me with his mouth agape. In that moment, the ex-free-world leader looked like a village idiot.

“Would have read better,” I went on. “In the history books. You’re afraid your name will bear the stigma of that moment of weakness. Of your symbolic impotence.”

“Gosh, I . . . ” He trailed off.

The inability to speak at all is, in my line of work, highly significant. I had to press home my advantage.

“I know what you’re thinking,” I said. In a session I would never say this, of course, but we were old familiars, after all, and I felt myself homing in. “Maybe Reagan wouldn’t have won at all. Maybe you’d still be president now. If you’d hit it. Who knows? Maybe the hostages woulda come home in time. Maybe you’d be more successful in other areas, too. If you know what I mean.”

The pause lasted a while.

Then:

“Well, Bob,” drawled Carter. “Now, you may just be right. But the thing is, I didn’t miss. I wasn’t trying to hit that poor critter at all.”

And just like that, the rabbit faded. Slowly but surely I knew the dark form of the old Mullins cat, strung up and skinned. Only had two and a half legs to begin with, limped around everywhere; that was why we hated it. Pitiful. Thing made you want to weep.

We trapped it in a corner, Al Jr., Travis, me, and J. C. Whose idea had it been to club it to death in the first place?

Not his.

“Listen. It was all of us that did it, Robert,” came Carter’s voice faintly. The wine made my head heavy; it wanted to loll. “Sure, you did the . . . you know, first hit . . . but the guys were egging you on. I hope you understand you don’t have to bear the burden alone. There was a mob mentality. I mean, the hardness of those times took a toll on us kids. I don’t believe it was your fault alone. I really don’t. I know we were just children. But I want you to know that I am deeply sorry we did not all step forward to take responsibility. I think how you were punished, and I feel for you. I will always be profoundly repentant for what we boys did.”

Carter was playing hard at deflection. He’d brought out the big guns.

“What you may want to do at this point is visualize the rabbit,” I said. My mind was wandering. Al Jr. had said we would end its suffering, put it out of its misery. Strength is the principle, now as it was then. Don’t cave, I told myself. Do not fall prey to Carter’s feebleness. For a while he had governed the nation, but weakness toppled him in the end. The rolling gait of the cat came to mind, how quickly it could get where it was going on its less than three legs. Old Mullins had pulled it around on a plywood cart with a string, but it didn’t need the cart. Even when it had been broadsided by the bat, it had struggled to get up again.

In quiet times, when memory floated, I imagined that little cat had been brave.

Quiet times brought on sentimentality.

I looked at Carter, the smudged glass globe against my fingers. Behind my hand the near-empty bottle was a column of light. Carter himself stretched sideways and ballooned as though in a funhouse mirror . . . it came to me in a wash of smells and color, that scene in the alley.

He hadn’t hit it. Not once.

There he was beside me, thin and bulgy-eyed. He shook his head, tried to stop the whole deal. Because it was my idea, I was up to bat first. He had put up his hands to grab the bat from me, fell back when I pushed against his chest, and stumbled away as I raised the implement.

Down it went. Down it went.

He had never joined in.

“You need to visualize the rabbit,” I said, shoring up my supports. My words were not slurring. I’ve always held my liquor. “Fix it firmly in your mind. The rabbit is what defeats us in the end, no matter what we do.” I saw a leaden pinpoint shrinking inward; I saw dry motes of dust, the gray hours. Then my eyes glanced across Carter. In passing it came to me how sad he looked. My eloquence was moving him. Possibly, just possibly, he would be able to let go.

Back then I was advising clients to use punching bags for aggression, often with images taped to them. But Carter was fairly sophisticated, and I felt instinctively it would be better to keep the self-expression abstract.

“So what are you going to do with the rabbit? Now that you have it? It’s in your sights, Mr. President. What are you going to do?”

For a time there was another pause, Carter seeming to gaze at me.

Before long he stood. “You know, friend,” he said in his gentle voice, “all of Creation is under this blue dome of sky. Maybe someone tossed up that bunny’s burrow with a plow blade; maybe it had a litter a coyote got into. There are animals that go mad if you kill off their young. Heck, swamp rabbits live maybe two years, if they’re lucky. Reckon that poor fella’s bones are somewhere near that pond as we speak, covered up in good old Georgia dirt.”

At this point he clapped me on the shoulder. I noticed his glass was still practically full: a good three fingers of the good Echézeaux. Was it going begging?

Something in his bearing was lighter. I understood that he was leaving. He wouldn’t need to lean on me again. He’d gotten what he came for.

And, sure enough, he would go on to a resurrection. He would rise from the ashes of a failed presidency to attain the stature of a well-respected elder statesman. It’s the job of men like me, behind the scenes, to shape and position; sometimes only a nudge is needed. Meanwhile, the public faces of our strength—our avatars, so to speak—are held up as heroes.

But we know what we do.

I took the presidential hand and held it.

Finally it was withdrawn.

“I appreciate you seeing me,” he said warmly. “You let me know if you ever need anything.”

With that he turned and stepped away. And did I whisper it, or did it only run silently through me? Out of its misery.

As he disappeared through the glass doors I stayed where I was, standing. The afternoon had been intense, and I couldn’t risk stumbling. It occurred to me he had a point, partly. I was the fall guy for doing what had to be done. I bore the weight of other men’s hesitation.

I saw the fullness of the three fingers then. Carter had left me with something.

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