Why certain stories ‘stick,’ turning caricatures into defining, enduring characteristics
Stories that “stick” to you — like gum on your shoe — turn caricatures into the characteristics we best remember.
We all fall down, but who falls up — three times in a row?
Has Joe Biden just reached his own “killer rabbit moment?” A story and image that cements the way history will forever judge him? The image of the president falling three times in a row while trying to rise up Air Force One's steps on March 19 (St, Joseph’s Day) shows and tells a story that had already been sticking to Biden. Will it endure?
Let’s first go back to Jimmy Carter on April 20, 1979 (yet another 4/20 for people fixated on that stoner “holiday” marking infamous milestones like the 4–20-1999 Columbine massacre and Adolf Hitler’s 4–20-1889 birthday).
The rabbit story “stuck” because it was something reporters and the public wouldn’t expect: while Carter was fishing alone in his boat, a rabbit swam rapidly toward him. It was such a bizarre, unexpected moment that Carter Press Secretary Jody Powell wound up telling the story to reporters he was drinking with several weeks later.
“The basic story was true, and I don’t know what Jody told, you know, in the middle of the night in a bar after a lot of drinking had gone on,” Carter told CNN in a 2010 interview.
“I was fishing one day, and Jody was there, and a rabbit was being chased by hounds, and he jumped in the water and swam toward my boat,’’ Carter explained. “When he got almost there, I splashed some water with the paddle, and the rabbit turned and went on and crawled out on the other side.”
Carter added, “there was nothing to it at all, but when Jody told it to his fellow, you know, drinkers, it became a very humorous and still lasting story: here it is 35 years later, and you’re still talking about it.”
Why we remember the “killer rabbit story”
The story “broke” on August 30, 1979, when Associated Press reporter Brooks Jackson wrote a story that got page one treatment nationwide with the headline, “Bunny Goes Bugs: Rabbit Attacks President.”
The story “grabbed” people because many reporters who heard it weren’t even aware that rabbits could swim, and none considered “bunnies” to be “aggressive animals” that would chase a president.
The story quickly was picked up by comedians, journalists, and political rivals. The story also became a 1980 song by Tom Paxton, “I don’t want a bunny wunny.”
Powell later explained the rabbit was actually a large “swamp rabbit” (Sylvilagus aquaticus), and the incident wasn’t that unusual. Except no one expected a rabbit would lunge toward a president (it was something that hadn’t happened before or since), making the story unforgettable.
“The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern,” — Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
How the “killer rabbit” became a painful metaphor for Jimmy Carter
Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. Carter, a one-term Georgia governor, was elected president in 1976 because he was a total outsider, an honest man who had nothing to do with Washington, D.C.
For those same reasons, he was immediately isolated and targeted by all sides as soon as he arrived. He faced two opponents in 1979–80:
- From his left, Sen. Edward Kennedy, carrying the torch for the famous Kennedy family.
- From his right, Ronald Reagan, who would defeat him by a landslide in 1980.
The image of a helpless man being threatened by a rabbit (a creature few would consider a threat) summed up the image of Carter as weak and outmatched by all who challenged him, even though he scared off the rabbit handily.
How Biden’s three-peat fall could become a killer rabbit story
The video of Biden, 78, stumbling three times in a row on his way up the stairs of Air Force One reinforces an image of him stumbling, no longer being able to do tasks he did easily in his prime younger years.
Half of Americans in a March 4–7 Rasmussen poll said they weren’t confident that Biden is “physically and mentally up to the job of being president of the United States.” Will the new video solidify and widen such perceptions?
Unlike the 1979 rabbit story, there’s video, the fruit of social media and TV. Foes immediately mocked him. Critics used the video in subsequent parodies, including a gag video showing Donald Trump making Biden fall by hitting him with golf balls and a video of Kamala Harris laughing as Biden falls.
Mainstream media sympathetic to Biden ignored or downplayed the video, inspiring more stories about their double standards. A 2020 Biden ad that mocked Trump for walking slowly down a ramp was edited into a new ad with the Biden slips as the new conclusion.
How many times will we see that video over the next four years?
Similar “killer rabbit” stories that stuck for past presidents and contenders
Over time, we remember key moments in administrations, memories we associate with those presidencies. Some similar “killer rabbit” stories that stuck over time:
- The first stumbling president. President Gerald Ford, probably our most athletic president (he was a star player for a University of Michigan national championship team), is best remembered for falling down the Air Force One stairs. Chevy Chase reinforced that image on the original “Saturday Night Live” by falling every time he portrayed Ford.
- The wimp president. Few realize George H.W. Bush was taller than Ronald Reagan and most of his peers because Newsweek said he was “Fighting the Wimp Factor,” and he was routinely portrayed as a wimp. The image that solidified that image? Video of an ill Bush vomiting in Japan.
- Blown dried come-on charm. Bill Clinton was admired and mocked for his smooth-talking, blown dry political charm. Then the story broke about Clinton halting traffic on an airport runway in 1993 to get a $200 haircut. Journalists called it history’s most famous and expensive haircut.
- The shoe and the shooting. President George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, are perhaps best associated with their own “once-in-a-lifetime” bizarre stories. A critic threw a shoe at Bush in Iraq (Bush ducked and wasn’t hit) while Cheney accidentally shot a friend in the face on a hunting trip (Cheney didn’t miss). These stories reinforced Bush’s “smooth” image while solidifying Cheney’s image of being “dark.”
- Sarah Palin and her Saturday Night caricature went viral in 2008. Americans thought the caricature was so good they blended the real Palin with the caricature.
“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people, people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” — Ernest Hemingway.