Now the rabbit is armed and hostile. It's a dangerous beast, though there may be exceptions.

For some years I have regarded the animal kingdom with interest and learned somewhat, so that I know the zebra is more dangerous than the elephant (for example) and any leopard foolish enough to lie down with a lamb had better watch out.

In our nation we deal less with fact than with well-stocked fantasy. Thus we think rabbits can outrun turtles (despite the wisdom of Aesop) and we think in our ignorance that the rabbit hops about with Easter baskets through a flowery mead.

It is far, far otherwise. Many a good hound has been grievously hurt by a rabbit.

They do not understand hunting at all.

Furthermore, I once hired a magician for a child's birthday party and he pulled a rabbit out of a hat and (without the least clearance) presented it to the little girl.

Instead of kicking him down the stairs (for wisdom so often comes late) I did what we Americans always do, I acquired a book to help me cope, for it was no mystery who was going to have to feed and water the varmint. The book said magicians use white Polish rabbits and usually produce aged, infirm specimens which they buy cheap, and it's shameful (the book went on) the way they give the rabbit to a tot who is heartbroken when the rabbit soon dies.

My anger at the magician's disgusting ethics was softened, perhaps, by the thought that this rabbit would at least soon join the E. bunny in eternal clovers.

Unfortunately (for in this life one never quite wins) I had chosen a scrupulous magician whose rabbit was an unparalleled example of health and hardihood who lived for 12 years.

It made no difference if one had appendicitis or faced financial ruin or had a gun shoved in his face or got a burnt croissant for breakfast. Whatever the day brought, one had to feed and water the rabbit.

Its name was Holly, God knows why, and it occupied a cage six feet wide and six feet high outdoors, and in all the years we had it it never allowed itself to be picked up (not that anyone tried after the first few times) without inflicting deep wounds on the forearm, suggesting amputation. In a fit of misguided compassion I built ramps with cleats so it could nest on a shelf four feet above the wire bottom, which I thought would be uncomfortable.

It lived with two white pigeons, into whose domestic arrangements it commonly intruded. They resigned themselves to sleeping one on each side of the rabbit.

In bitter winter the rabbit flourished, and in the deepest miasma of an effluvious summer it flourished equally. It never greeted any human in all those years without a twitch of contempt and a thundering tatoo of hind paws able and willing to inflict gashes.

My wife thought it missed the magician. I thought it missed a shotgun more.

The hounds gave it wide berth, and Luke especially would not patrol within 10 feet of the cage. I always thought the rabbit once bit him through the wire when he was a pup.

You could not, of course, take vacations, at least not without negotiating around like the Vatican, but eventually the rabbit quietly breathed his last and the world was better for it.

I say he breathed his last, but I doubt the creature had sex or any other vulnerability, and if its ermine fur were not so conspicuous to any predator, it would have been a great relief to turn it loose in the brier patch.

Now as for President Carter, he was riding his canoe quietly when a rabbit swam toward him, perhaps bent on attack, and the president swept a small wave in the rabbit's direction, causing it to return to shore.

That is responsible, controlled behavior. No undue force was used.

But in no time the wits of Washington were bounding about giving public thanks that the president had been spared in his combat with the rabbit, and this was done to diminish the dignity of the White House.

Many men may outlive cowardice, and most outlive folly, but few outlive the smiles that follow confrontations with rabbits.

There is nothing wrong with laughing at it. Laughter is inevitable, but there's more to it than that, and a laugh is not right as the ultimate judgment.

Once I hreard a great soprano in "Tosca" sing her aria of art and love so sweet the whole theater was moved and fell into tears. As she ended this great work she sank to her knees, only with such a thump and reverberation (for the stage was quite high and hollow beneath) the whole house began to laugh.

And yet it was a fine aria.

I heard it said, after the president's rabbit adventure, that the Republicans had spent $400,000 in a secret lab project crossing a rabbit and a water vole and training it to attack the nation's preeminent Democrat by remote-control hypnosis.

But I do not believe the Republicans are that clever and undoubtedly the case of the Triton rabbit was an act of God.

It's not true that if anything can go wrong it will, but it is quite true that things go wrong provided no remedy can every right them.

Once at a stoplight, with another car beside me, also waiting the light, a small person said in a clear piercing tones:

"Daddy, why does that man look like a monkey?"

I glanced over and the truth was terrible. The man looked more like a monkey than most monkeys. The light changed and that was that, but of course it's true the most frightful wounds are often dealt without malice, in perfect innocence.

The pundits of Washington, who are none too gifted a lot if you ask me, have thus far failed to analyze the rabbit crisis with any degree of insight, let alone sympathy.

I recall that tribute of the great historian to those who "having done what men could, then suffered what men must." Such is the president's position vis-a-vis the rabbit.

When Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address, he got through it beautifully and the drama was flawless. But there is no reason he should not have developed a severe cramp in the calf about the middle of it, or that a bee should not have stung him on the nose.

I am always nervous at performances of "Tristan" since I once heard the dead Tristan, with Isolde singing her heart out over him for 19 minutes, burp towards the end.

These are acts of God, not mere accidents but acts indeed of divine origin to test men, reminding them they are mortal and liable always to bee stings, burps and amphibious rabbits at the least opportune moments.

The grandeur of a civilization consists of laughing, perhaps, when Clovis falls in the mud while reaching for the water iris, sacred symbol of France, but going on past laughter to raise the oriflamme.

I consider the president was in more danger than people think, who know nothing of rabbits, but beyond that I marvel at his control. I once knew a leopard at a zoo and a gorilla newly imported from Africa. They were both charming animals and the leopard beamed when his ears were scratched (I was a friend of the zoo director and had unusual advantages) and as for the gorilla, Tim, I am not persuaded apes have souls and will someday sing in heaven, so I am not by nature fearful of animals in general.

But I'm glad the president is safe. It may have been a near thing. Deliverance, then laughter. But onward, I say, past laughter, to the heights.