Obama Pardons the Thanksgiving Turkey, But What Did It Do?

Mickey Paraskevas Turkey Cartoon
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Once again, just before Thanksgiving, the President pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey. This is a recently added tradition to the holiday season. I don’t recall anyone pardoning a turkey before President H. W. Bush.

But did you ever have this experience where you aren’t paying much attention to somebody and they say something that doesn’t seem right because it doesn’t make sense? The pardoning of the turkey is one of those things for me.

“Yesterday, on the White House lawn, President Obama pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey,” the commentator says.

And in my mind, I see a big turkey, a very sad turkey, having been convicted of a terrible crime, being brought out to the lawn and let out of his cage. He stands there. He has this sort of hopeful but worried look on his face. He knows he’s done wrong. He is going to get the axe? And here comes the President. It is really him. Is he really going to pardon me for what I did and allow me to go free like my keeper told me? It seems unbelievable. Okay, here goes. Smile. Hope.

The flashbulbs pop. The President speaks. What was that he said? It happened so fast. And now he’s gone. There are bushes over there. Should I make a break for them? Uh oh. They want me back in the cage.

Anyway, that’s one thing. Here’s another. It’s the use of the word “Great.” Or more accurately “Great!” I am speaking only of the printed word here, as it happens in emails. Who says print is dead?

I first noticed this about three months ago. It was in a business context with the paper. I sent an email. “Here, attached, is the stuff I told you about,” I wrote. Attached was stuff.com. Twenty minutes later came back a reply.

“Great!” it said.

Here was this person, over the moon about this profit/loss excel file I sent. In my mind, I saw him jumping around, hopping in a big circle on one foot and pumping his fist in the air in happiness. Wow! The excel file!

The first time this happened and I got this message back I thought wow—and I thought my business associate was such a dour person. How wrong I was. Great!

The next day, however, it happened again, when I sent some information over to a salesman for the paper who needed some information about a client.

“Great!” came back.

And then it happened again. “Great” has a whole new definition now. Add it to the usual ones. Here are the old definitions: “Impressively large, exceptionally talented, powerful, expert, lasting a long time. Add “I got it.”

Soon “great” is going to waddle over into every day life. It should, I think. Here would be some bits of conversation.

“Could you change the station? I really don’t want to watch this.”


“I don’t think I can vote for this guy. I just can’t vote for anyone who parts his hair in the middle.”


“You’re passing somebody on the right, again.”


I think adding this to our conversational vocabulary would be most excellent.

* * *

About the President’s pardon, baffled by all this, I did try to figure it out for myself. I thought, well, it’s the other way around. It’s that the President is begging the pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey, who represents all turkeys everywhere who, this time of year, are basically all being slaughtered. And it comes from a tradition in many primitive cultures where they say a little prayer asking for forgiveness to a struggling creature they have just shot with an arrow because now they are going to have to issue the coup de grace because they are hungry. The “pardon” as used by the President is kind of a shorthand for this. But our presidents are not supposed to be begging anyone or to forgive them.

But now I’ve learned this truly is a pardon. I did the research. And it is a completely ridiculous story. For years, farmers sent turkeys to the White House on Thanksgiving, where were appreciated and eaten. On November 19, 1963, President Kennedy was presented with a 55- pound live turkey with a sign “Good Eating, Mr. President” on it. Kennedy was so astonished by its size that he declined to accept it. He told aides, “Have this turkey returned to its farm. We’ll let this one grow.” After that, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times said that the President had pardoned the turkey, although the President did not actually say that.

In any case, as a result of this, during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, it was decided to make this an annual tradition, with the President publicly pardoning a turkey. And it has been going on to this day.

The Turkey to be Pardoned is actually selected at birth, like they select the Dalai Lama. But it’s a process. The turkey typically comes from the farm of whoever happens to be the Chairperson of the National Turkey Federation at the time.

At birth, they select not one turkey but 80, who are then raised to compete for the honor. All 80 are trained as best as possible to be comfortable with loud noises, large crowds and flash photography, and of the 80, 20 are chosen, and then that 20 are narrowed down to two finalists. The White House staff gives these two names. And both birds are presented to be pardoned, one as the “winner,” the second as the “alternate” in case the winner dies before his or her time.

After the official pardon ceremony, the turkeys are taken off to live out their days either to Frying Pan Park in Fairfax County, Virginia, to Disneyland in California or to Walt Disney World in Orlando. They serve as grand marshals in Disney’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

This year’s turkeys were named “Popcorn” and “Caramel,” and were both from a farm in Badger, Minnesota. They weighed 38 pounds and were selected not by the White House staff but by an online contest.

At the ceremony, which I watched on YouTube, President Obama approaches the turkey, says “by the power vested in me…” and then gobbles on for another minute before officially offering the pardon, which he does by making the sign of the cross.

What’s left unsaid with this elaborate procedure is that these two turkeys, having committed crimes, are now pardoned, but all the rest of the turkeys in the country go to the executioner to pay the ultimate price.

What crimes were committed? You know. They’re turkeys.

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