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Political animals

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February 15, 2006

By MICHAEL COLLINS

Jimmy Carter fought off a killer bunny. Ronald Reagan was almost flogged by a turkey. And Andrew Jackson’s potty-mouthed parrot was barred from his funeral.

Vice President Dick Cheney may be a national laughingstock after shooting a fellow hunter while aiming for a flock of quail. But he’s hardly the first politician who has suffered an embarrassing and potentially disastrous run-in with nature’s creatures.

History is filled with stories of animals that have caused political humiliation, scandal and even death. Think of Cleopatra’s suicide by serpent.

To this day, Carter is still sometimes ridiculed for his confrontation with the infamous swamp rabbit.

The tale began in April 1979 when the president was fishing in Plains, Ga., and spotted the amphibious animal swimming straight for his canoe. Gnashing its teeth and hissing menacingly, the four-legged beast seemed angry and ready to climb into the presidential boat.

The commander-in-chief did what anyone else under attack might do. He picked up a paddle and whacked the demented bunny in self-defense. (Carter later claimed he merely splashed water at the rabbit and shooed it away.)

The story might have ended there if Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, hadn’t innocently shared it with a reporter over a cup of tea. Editorial cartoonists had a field day, and Carter was asked to explain his behavior at town hall meetings and press conferences. The bunny episode became a metaphor for what some saw as Carter’s weakness as a leader.

Adding insult to injury, a White House photographer captured the scene on film, and the Reagan administration later made the picture public, giving the hairy tale a visual and a whole new life.

Reagan had a few animal mishaps of his own. He was nearly flogged by a turkey when a photo op went comically awry in 1981. The Gipper was supposed to “pardon” the gobbler, thus saving the bird from the Thanksgiving dinner table. The turkey got nervous, however, and started flapping its wings uncontrollably, startling the president.

A few years later, Reagan was thrown from a horse in Mexico, struck his head and had to be evacuated by helicopter to Arizona for medical treatment. Clearly embarrassed, the macho president asked his handlers to make sure “people know that I was thrown from the horse. I did not fall.”

Prince Charles has had his share of embarrassing falls from the saddle. The Prince of Wales broke his shoulder when he fell off a horse during a foxhunt in 2001. Later that year, he took a nasty spill from a polo pony and was knocked unconscious.

Bill Clinton, a man known for feeling others’ pain, was probably empathizing with an American bald eagle on July 4, 1996. Clinton released the ailing but rehabilitated bird into the Chesapeake Bay, only to see it get attacked and knocked down by two ospreys. The Coast Guard had to rescue the poor animal as the press corps looked on.

Presidential pets have figured prominently in several administrations, sometimes becoming the butt of jokes or, even worse, causing a national scandal.

Jackson’s talking Green Parrot, named Pol, was placed in the president’s room after his death and was to remain at his side until burial. But the bilingual bird, which could curse in English and Spanish, spewed obscenities and caused such a fuss that it had to be removed.

Dwight Eisenhower brought along two dogs _ a Weimeraner named Heidi and a Scottie named Spunky _ when he moved into the White House. Heidi’s stay at the presidential mansion was short-lived: She soiled a rug in the Diplomatic room and was sent off to the farm.

An indignant Franklin Roosevelt came to the defense of his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala, when rumors started swirling that he’d sent an entire battle fleet to retrieve the pooch from Alaska.

Vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon, accused of benefiting from a secret slush fund, went on television in 1952 and swore that the only political gift he’d ever received was a cocker spaniel named Checkers. Nixon kept the dog, and his famous “Checkers Speech” is credited with saving his political hide.

A decade later, one of Lyndon Johnson’s pet beagles nearly destroyed his career. Johnson grabbed the animal by the ears and lifted it up on its hind legs while photographers recorded the scene. Animal lovers were outraged, and Johnson’s popularity plummeted.

Even political spouses have been unwittingly caught off guard by the animal kingdom.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush once came face to face with an unexpected guest _ a giant rat _ during a swim in the White House pool.

“It went by right in front of me,” she later recalled. “I mean, it was enormous. Fortunately, George Bush was there and drowned the beast. It was horrible.”

From then on, the first lady asked the White House guards to check the pool for wayward rodents before she waded in.

(Contact Michael Collins at CollinsM(at)shns.com)