At White House, President Obama's pardons prevent turkeys' 'shellacking'

President Obama continued the White House tradition of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey.
By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 10:50 PM

Declaring that it "feels pretty good to stop at least one shellacking this November," a smiling President Obama pardoned two male turkeys at a Rose Garden ceremony Wednesday. There were claps, cheers and a relieved flapping of wings.

In the bird world, this is the equivalent of winning the Powerball. Forty-six million of the lucky pair's feathered friends will face a much sadder (sad for them, anyway) fate on Thanksgiving. But Apple and Cider will spend the rest of their days luxuriating on the grounds at Mount Vernon, where they might not miss their deliciously departed pals.

Flanked by daughters Sasha and Malia, the president looked to be fully enjoying this brief respite from other matters of state.

"This is the solemn duty I'm sworn to uphold as the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth," he said to laughter from the crowd of 100 or so seated guests and at least that many journalists.

Of the two turkeys, only Apple was present for the ceremony that took place on a crisp, fall morning. (Cider's absence was unexplained.) "That's a big-[bottomed] bird," a rogue in the press gallery exclaimed upon seeing the 45-pound guest of honor. Indeed, the pure white Apple looked less like a turkey than a giant, ruffly snowman. A drumstick alone from him looked large enough to feed a family of four - not that we're lobbying for the pardon to be rescinded. As the president decided Apple's fate, he roamed and gobbled under the watchful eye of his handler.

While the origins of the pardon are disputed by historians, there is general agreement that a succession of turkeys have been visiting the White House for years. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman was the first recipient of a bird gifted by America's turkey farmers. The tradition has continued annually but it wasn't until 1989, when George H.W. Bush was president, that the donated turkeys were first pardoned.

As White House rituals go, this one has a peculiar logic to it. In most cases, a presidential pardon requires that a crime be committed first. It's true that Apple had a guilty countenance and seemed not to want to look the president or others in the eye. Still, it's hard to imagine he or Cider had broken any laws. And if it's simply a crime to be a turkey, well, who among us is innocent?

But this was not the day to ponder such unniceties.

Yubert Envia, 47, the chairman of the National Turkey Federation, was on hand to help present his charges to the president. Envia traveled with 16 family members - plus the two turkeys - from his home in Modesto, Calif., where he is the vice president of turkey and prepared foods at Foster Farms.

The turkeys, he said in an interview Tuesday, were picks of the litter - the top two specimens of a "presidential flock" of 25 that hatched in July. They had a beauty pageant Friday, where all the birds strutted their stuff, showed off their plumage and shook their tail feathers in an attempt to determine which fowl was most fair. They also practiced being lifted and placed on a desk, their main responsibility in the turkey-pardoning ceremony.

The selection process, Obama explained to the crowd, was "kind of like a turkey version of 'Dancing With the Stars,' except the stakes for the contestants were much higher."

Envia, who admitted to a few sleepless nights as he planned for this trip to the world's most famous address, said Tuesday that Apple and Cider had "performed exceptionally well" in the contest that led to their salvation. Envia needn't have worried about Apple's behavior. He never fussed, even when the president approached and remarked, "That's some kind of wattle," or when Sasha and Malia politely declined to pet him.

The ceremony was not entirely frivolous. The president was given two oven-ready turkeys, from Jaindl's Turkey Farm in Orefield, Pa., that he said will be donated to Martha's Table, a local organization that assists low-income and homeless families. Obama described Thanksgiving as the "holiday that asks us to be thankful for what we have and generous to those who have less," and he thanked military families for their service.

At Mount Vernon, Apple - who was not named after Gwyneth Paltrow's kid - and Cider will be on display during "Christmas at Mount Vernon," which visitors can enjoy through Jan. 6. The turkeys will then live in a "custom-made enclosure," according to the White House, at Mount Vernon's livestock facility. There they can look forward to future Thanksgivings, without the typical turkey trepidation.

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