The turkey pardon is America’s dumbest tradition

November 26, 2013

It's time once again for an absurd Thanksgiving ritual.

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)
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)

On Wednesday, the National Turkey Foundation will carry two plump male turkeys over to the White House and lift them onto a table. President Obama will give them goofy names like Caramel and Popcorn. Then Obama will "pardon" the turkeys and, instead of lopping off their heads and tossing them in an oven, he will let them live out the rest of their lives at the estate in Mount Vernon.

To be fair, the president has to do lots of frivolous public events like this one every year. But the turkey pardon stands out as being especially dumb and worth abolishing. Here's why:

-- It's not even a real tradition! The National Turkey Federation has donated two turkeys to the White House every year since 1947. Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower did the sensible thing and simply ate the birds. No pardons there.

Some accounts credit John F. Kennedy with the first official turkey pardon, but like most JFK mythologizing, this is overblown sentimentality: Kennedy merely sent one of his turkeys back to the farm because it wasn't big enough. "We'll let this one grow," he groused of the inadequate offering. (Others credit Abraham Lincoln, who once spared a turkey destined for Christmas dinner when his son Tad pleaded for mercy, but that clearly didn't catch on for decades.)

Ronald Reagan was technically the first president to "pardon" a Thanksgiving turkey, in 1987 — but he did it as a joke to distract the press from scandal. Reporters had been hounding the president about whether he planned to grant pardons to key Iran-Contra figures like Oliver North and John Poindexter. Reagan merely quipped that he would have pardoned that year's turkey had it not been en route to a petting zoo already.

Two years later, in 1989, Reagan's successor George H.W. Bush made the turkey pardon an annual ritual. But it all started as a glib one-liner meant to deflect attention away from White House lawbreaking. Hardly a sacred convention.

-- The pardoned turkeys aren't that much better off — because the life of a turkey is misery and pain. This is going to get gruesome, and I'm sorry about that. But modern-day domestic turkeys aren't bred to have a happy life. They're raised to be as large as possible so that they can be slaughtered as soon as possible and produce the greatest volume of delicious turkey meat.

Some fun facts: Turkeys bred for eating now grow to an average of 30 pounds — much bigger than wild turkeys.* (The two turkeys on their way to the White House are over 37 pounds apiece.) These domesticated turkeys are often so fat that their skeletons are unable to support that weight. They frequently develop bone deformities and degenerative joint diseases. They're incapable of breeding on their own. They often suffer heart failure or bleeding around the kidneys.

So it's no coincidence that, as US News & World Report and National Journal have discovered, most pardoned turkeys die within a year of being granted a reprieve anyway. The White House wants us to believe these turkeys are living out a life of leisure on the farm and bopping along to their favorite Lady Gaga tracks. Not so:


Do we look like we're having fun? (White House)

For the record, I'm not opposed to raising turkeys for food (and, yes, it's possible to get humanely raised turkeys). But it's not clear why we need an elaborate White House ceremony designed to obscure where that food actually comes from.

-- It's a mockery of the presidential pardon, which is an all-too neglected issue. Maybe this isn't surprising, since the turkey pardon was basically invented as a way of mocking presidential pardons. Still, it's worth mentioning.

After tomorrow, Obama will have "pardoned" 10 turkeys in all (turkeys that, as best we can tell, haven't actually committed any crimes). By contrast, he will have only pardoned or commuted the sentences of 40 actual living human beings.

The latter is a record low for modern-day presidents. At the same point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had pardoned 313 people. Harry Truman had pardoned 1,537 people:


(Dylan Matthews)

Last year, Sam Morrison, an official who spent 13 years in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney before retiring in 2010, described the prevailing attitude toward pardons this way: "They tend to view any grant of clemency not as a good thing, as a criminal justice success story, but almost as a defeat — that you're taking away something from what some good prosecutor achieved." (The Justice Department disputed this characterization.)

Over at National Journal, Ron Fournier pointed out that, at the bare minimum, Obama could grant clemency to all the people still serving extra time in prison under the old crack-sentencing guidelines — guidelines that Obama himself opposed as excessive and which Congress reduced for all new prisoners in 2010. So far, however, there's no sign that the White House will do this.

The White House does, however, have a flashy Web site up letting you vote on your favorite soon-to-be-pardoned turkey. Yes, there are hashtags.

* Fixed the weight numbers.

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Neil Irwin · November 26, 2013