Presidential pardoning of turkeys: A Thanksgiving tradition past its prime?

November 21, 2012

Of all the indignities a president must endure, officiating at the annual turkey pardon is perhaps the most unbecoming. Being mocked by late-night comedians or spit up on by a baby or called a liar by a member of Congress? Those things happen. But they pale next to this bizarre spectacle — sort of the turkey population’s version of the “Hunger Games” — in which the leader of the world stays the execution of two overweight birds while another 45 million or so shuffle off to the chopping block.

Every year in late November, the disbelieving eyes of the world turn to Washington to watch the White House’s current occupant exercise this presidential prerogative. And on Wednesday they weren’t disappointed as President Obama gamely feigned interest in the fate of the fowl in front of him.

Accompanied by daughters Sasha and Malia, the president strode to a lectern outside the Oval Office in the picturesque Rose Garden. The sky was a pure blue. The scent of baking cookies wafted enticingly in the air. The stars of the day, Cobbler and Gobbler, two 19-week-old, 40-pound turkeys from a farm near Harrisonburg, Va., gobbled with delight. Their day, they might have sensed, would end well. Better than that of their pals, anyway.

The president played his role with just the right mix of amusement and sincerity.

“The American people have spoken, and these turkeys are moving forward,” he said, smiling, before going on to talk about the real meaning of Thanksgiving and encouraging Americans to look out for one another.

But perhaps the time has come for Obama to end this dubious turkey pardoning charade. And not because People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has requested that he spare all turkeys (although it has). Or that the symbolic pardoning of turkeys contrasts poorly with the actual pardoning of humans (although it does). No, the real reason he should end it is because it is unforgivably silly, and no president should intentionally subject himself — or the country — to such inanity.

The president has much on his plate (if not these two turkeys), so he’s to be forgiven if this doesn’t immediately rise to the top of his list of things to accomplish in his final term. By all means, deal with the fiscal cliff. Tackle global warming. Fix the Middle East. Sort out immigration. Perhaps even arrange for the Wizards to win a game.

But above all, put this ridiculous custom out of its misery. Everyone will thank you (not least the reporters assigned to cover it).

Like many ballyhooed traditions, the presidential turkey pardon has mostly bogus origins. Yes, Lincoln is said to have pardoned a turkey at the request of his son, but there was no ceremony involved. And yes, Truman and a succession of presidents following him have accepted a turkey or two from the powerful poultry lobby. (Powerful poultry lobby, that’s fun to say.) But this isn’t a time-honored ritual going back to the nation’s earliest years. This annual pardoning practice didn’t begin until the George H.W. Bush administration. So ending the tradition wouldn’t exactly upset the balance of American history.

The turkey is blameless in this national fowlderol, of course. It’s the justifiable star of Thanksgiving and perhaps the only meat that can pair with the fusillade of side dishes that land on the holiday table. Turkey with yams and marshmallows? Sure, why not? And it’s true the turkey has been popular ever since Ben Franklin lobbied that it be the national bird isntead of the bald eagle. (In a letter to his daughter, Franklin wrote that “in truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.”) Alas, the bald eagle, a noted scavenger that Franklin described as a “bird of bad moral character,” won that plum post.

No, Americans love the turkey — both its history and its flavor. This isn’t about turkeys. This is about things that are too goofy for a president to take part in. Just a few days ago, Obama was meeting with Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Aung San Suu Kyi. What must she think when she sees this same man keeping such jovial company with these birds?

The turkey pardon that began innocently enough has evolved into a surreal spectacle. Each year the birds in contention for a starring role in the Rose Garden are put through their paces, judged by standards that Westminster Kennel Club contestants would probably find overbearing. Finally, two are selected and then whisked to Washington, where they are put up in a suite at the W Hotel.

We wish we were making this up.

After the ceremony, the birds are taken to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and gardens, where they are on display through the holidays and then spend the rest of their days in a “custom-made enclosure at Mount Vernon’s nationally recognized livestock facility.” Good for them, but really, why do we care?

If this tradition is considered too dear to give up entirely, perhaps we could honor Thanksgiving staples other than the turkey. The humble mashed potato, perhaps? Or the beautifully ringed canned cranberry sauce? Or howzabout a pie?

And if polling shows that Americans simply won’t tolerate an end to the turkey pardon ceremony, there’s always another option.

Get the vice president to do it.

Joe Heim is an editor and writer for The Washington Post magazine where he writes Just Asking, a weekly Q&A column. He has recently written about candy, not saving for your kids for college, Downton Abbey, the role of presidents as consolers-in-chief and about Washingtonians personal experiences with gun violence.
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