Arts Post
Posted at 10:40 AM ET, 11/23/2011

Thanksgiving turkey pardon: 5 theatrical moments for presidential birds

President Obama pardoned Liberty and Peace on Wednesday, the fifth and sixth turkeys to skip the Thanksgiving feast during this administration. It’s an annual ritual that reminds us of both thankfulness and our elected officials’ power to decide between life and death. Naturally, it’s fraught with drama.


He’s no dead bird walkin’: A 45-pounder struts in the Rose Garden during a pardoning ceremony by President Bill Clinton, with National Turkey Federation officials Frank Gessell, left, and Jerry Jerome in 1998. (Doug Mills - AP)

See the pardon here.

1. Turkey requires understudy. Though the photo op only shows the president pardoning one turkey, each spared bird also has an alternate, just in case the winner is too anxious in front of the crowd. Turkeys get stage fright, too, it seems.

The practice of including an alternate began in 1989 with George H.W. Bush, the first president to formally pardon a turkey, according to the White House blog. Don’t worry — even if the first turkey is able to perform its role, the second turkey is still granted a stay of execution. The alternate turkey saved the day in the 2008 ceremony, President George W. Bush’s final pardoning, after the primary turkey came down with a cold. A bird named Pumpkin replaced the ailing Pecan, but both were spared the, uh, chopping block.
The Obama sisters, Sasha and Malia, get a closer look at Courage, a turkey who received President Obama’s first Thanksgiving reprieve in 2009. (Marvin Joseph - THE WASHINGTON POST)

2. Turkey nailed to set. My colleague Al Kamen recalls a moment in presidential turkey pardon history that involved a rather gruesome scene: In the pre-understudy days, when turkeys presented to the president were not always pardoned, President Nixon received a rather rambunctious bird:

The turkey was so flustered that, according to the tale, which is not widely recalled these days, its feet had to be nailed to the table.
We checked our recollection with a few Nixon administration veterans. One of them, who definitely would have known, e-mailed back: “Regarding the effort to restrain the White House Thanksgiving turkey, it is my understanding that at least one year, they nailed its feet to the table.” (Apparently the bird doesn’t have nerve endings in portions of its feet.)


The Minnesota turkeys await President Herbert Hoover in front of the White House in 1929. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

3. Turkeys’ second act set in Frying Pan Park. After the first President Bush pardoned his turkey, he said “Let me assure this fine tom he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table. Not this guy. He’s been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.” The park where that farm was located had a rather unfortunate name: Frying Pan Park, in Herndon, Va. It served as a constant reminder of mortality for the turkeys. Other presidential turkeys have been sent to Disneyland or Disney World, where they were honored in the Disney Thanksgiving Parade. Now, turkeys live out their days at Mount Vernon.


President Ronald Reagan hams it up as he is presented a turkey before his final Thanksgiving in the White House in 1988. (Mike Spague - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

4. President Abraham Lincoln subject of apocryphal turkey lore. Lincoln may have interrupted an 1863 cabinet meeting to pardon the first turkey — but for Christmas, not Thanksgiving. Says the White House blog: “According to one story, Lincoln’s son Tad begged his father to write out a presidential pardon for the bird meant for the family’s Christmas table, arguing it had as much a right to live as anyone. Lincoln acquiesced and the turkey lived.” But there’s no documentation of this happening, so the story may just be another Lincoln myth.

5. Presidential turkey gets deluxe hotel suite in the W. Not only is Liberty, the 2011 turkey, granted the gift of its life, but the role of pardoned turkey comes with some pretty plush accommodations. Picture this year’s turkey kicking back at a suite in the W Hotel, where, Fishbowl DC reports, the fowl stayed before the ceremony. “He’ll be fed, berries, acorn and corn. No word on champagne or in-room massage,” reports Fishbowl’s Betsey Rothstein. This turkey apparently likes to play the crowd, too: “I watched his presser in Minnesota on his way to D.C. — and he’s a bit of a flier,” says Barbara Martin, a publicist for BrandLinkDC Communications. His alternate, Peace, may be waiting in the, um, wings.


President George W. Bush introduces his new feathered friend Flyer to a group of children in the Rose Garden in 2006. The pardoned turkeys came from a flock near Monett, Ill. (Mark Wilson - GETTY IMAGES)

More Thanksgiving stories:

Holiday guide 2011

Giving thanks for long weekends

Thanksgiving for procrastinators

By  |  10:40 AM ET, 11/23/2011

 
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