The annual Turkey pardon, demystified

Tracey Samuelson Nov 27, 2014
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The annual Turkey pardon, demystified

Tracey Samuelson Nov 27, 2014
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Every year at this time, the president of the United States, leader of the free world, participates in a truly bizarre political ritual: the pardon of a turkey. President Obama stood before a 50-pound bird Wednesday, made the sign of the cross over him and pardoned him for what, exactly? Comedian John Oliver has a theory: “Every single turkey is guilty, specifically, guilty of having delicious bird parts that should be serving time in the prison of my mouth,” he said in a recent YouTube video.

Mac and Cheese, this year’s turkeys, were born in July on a farm in Ohio. Cheese received the official pardon, but there are always two birds selected – just in case.

“Miss America has a runner up, the president has a vice president, an actor has an understudy,” says Keith Williams with the National Turkey Federation, the official supplier of the pardoned birds.

Williams says Mac and Cheese were chosen for their white fluffy feathering and charming personalities.

“[We] look for is a bird that will be easily handled, in that it can be picked up and put on that little table there where the president can see it,” he says.

The origin of this “treasured” tradition is a bit murky, though the National Turkey Federation, a lobbying group, has given a bird to the White House since the 1940s. Abraham Lincoln spared a turkey after his son Tad argued the bird “had as good a right to live as anybody;” President Harry Truman pardoned a turkey in 1947. But George H. W. Bush was the first president to make it a formal pardon.

“Even though this isn’t a big thing, there is something to note that a lobbying group is even behind this,” says Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. “That is Washington in a nutshell these days.”

But while turkey pardon may feel silly, Zelizer says politicians see value in it. “We are in an age where the character of the president matters very much,” he says. “People care about who someone is, not just what policies they’re going to fight for. These kinds of rituals are part of how presidential handlers try to package a person.”

But what happens to these turkeys after the cameras are gone?

Well, past birds have gone to Disneyland and George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. Mac and Cheese are now headed to a newly renovated roost at Morven Park in Virginia, joining last year’s birds, Popcorn and Caramel. Well, actually just Caramel. “Popcorn’s not there,” explains Keith Williams. “Popcorn, you know — turkeys do not live a long time. They are bred for Thanksgiving.” 

Over the last twenty years or so, turkeys have be bred to grow bigger, faster, and with more white meat, says Michael Hulet, a professor at Penn State, focusing on meat bird production. That’s, in part, a reflection of American appetites.

“Part of the selection for larger birds and more breast meat puts a lot more demand on the supply organs of the bird, such as the heart, and the liver, lungs,” says Hulet.

Therefore, in the end, the presidential pardon is maybe more like a temporary stay. Popcorn died during a heat wave last summer.

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