The day before Thanksgiving, Barack Obama, 44th President of these United States of America, took a moment to give Popcorn and Caramel a second chance. No, this is not indicative of any rebellion on the part of the president against First Lady Michelle’s campaign for healthier snacks. Rather, Popcorn and Caramel are two twenty-week-old, white-breasted turkeys who—unlike so many of their kin, the leftovers of which are, even now, crammed into refrigerators across the nation—were spared from becoming Thanksgiving dinner by means of official presidential pardon.
According to the White House, the first U.S. president to spare a holiday turkey was Abraham Lincoln, who gave up his Christmas dinner in 1863. After his eleven-year-old son Tad decided to “adopt” the bird and name it Jack, Lincoln had, in the words of Bill Clinton, “no choice but to give Jack the full run of the White House.”
The official annual presentation of Thanksgiving turkeys began under Harry Truman in 1947. Some sources cite Truman as the first president to pardon a turkey, but the official Truman library vehemently denies such allegations of softness, insisting that Truman carved up the gobbler in question without a drop of remorse. Reportedly, Eisenhower too scarfed down his bird with vigor, providing no evidence that a more humane alternative ever crossed his mind.
Fast forward to 1963—in an ironic twist of fate, John Fitzgerald Kennedy spared the bird presented to him, not knowing that his own life would be cut tragically short less than four days later. However, while it is widely documented that JFK allowed the turkey (outfitted in a sign reading “Good Eatin’ Mr. President”) to live, the statement accompanying this unofficial pardon has been the object of fierce dispute. Some sources quote Kennedy as saying, “Let’s just keep him.” Other accounts are less flattering, reporting that the president rejected the bird, suggesting that “[we] let this one grow.” Certain media reports describe said turkey as being too large to fit in a normal oven. Was President Kennedy a gold-hearted poultry savior, a beacon of hope for fowl nationwide? Or was he just a glutton demanding more gobbler to gobble?
With JFK’s potential pardon still up for debate, the first verified instance of presidential turkey pardoning occurred in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan sent the turkey presented to him—a bird named Charlie—to a petting zoo instead of to the chopping block. (This was actually an attempt to deflect criticism of Reagan’s handling of the Iran-Contra affair, but hey, a good deed’s a good deed, right?) And finally, in 1989, it was George H.W. Bush who, following Reagan’s noble example, solidified the turkey pardon’s position in the rich history of American tradition.
Today, the turkeys to be pardoned are selected as chicks and are groomed for the moment of pardon their entire lives. These lucky ducks (er, turkeys) are still fed and fattened like their less-fortunate brethren—after all, it wouldn’t be nearly as magnanimous for the leader of the free world to pass up a skinny turkey, now would it? However, these elect few are also trained to deal with paparazzi—it wouldn’t be very becoming to respond to the gift of salvation with a terrified squawk and an attempt to fly the coop.
After being pardoned, the birds are sent to a farm to live out the rest of their days in peace. Thanks to presidential generosity, the turkeys usually live a long, happy life—except for the vast majority that die within a year as a result of complications related to obesity, including heart disease, respiratory failure, and joint damage.
While I applaud President Obama’s benevolence towards these innocent fowl, we here at Culture Shock and the Howard Thurman Center are deeply invested in promoting equality. As such, I believe that the next step for our nation is to extend executive compassion to other unfortunate critters for whom the holidays are never a happy time. Why not pardon the Christmas lambs this year? What about the poor piggies slaughtered to become our Easter hams? Turkey pardoning is a start, but it is time for some real change to take place in America—and that means equality of opportunity for all of the creatures that end up on our dining room tables.
Food for thought, Mr. President.