What’s the deal with turkey pardons?

Posted Nov. 24, 2011, at 10:50 a.m.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pardoned Liberty and Peace on Wednesday, the fifth and sixth turkeys to skip the Thanksgiving feast during this administration. The annual ritual that reminds us of both thankfulness and of our elected officials’ power to decide between life and death is, naturally, fraught with drama:

1. Turkey requires understudy. Turkeys get stage fright, too, it seems. The practice of offering an official turkey pardon began in 1989, with President George H.W. Bush, according to the White House blog, and alternates were included soon after. The alternate turkey saved the day in the 2008 ceremony after the primary turkey came down with a cold. A bird named Pumpkin replaced the ailing Pecan — and both were spared the, uh, chopping block.

2. Turkey nailed to the set. Washington Post columnist Al Kamen recalled, in a recent blog post, a moment in pardon history when President Richard Nixon received a rambunctious bird, and a Nixon administration veteran e-mailed him to confirm the tale: “Regarding the effort to restrain the White House Thanksgiving turkey, it is my understanding that at least one year, they nailed its feet to the table.” (Apparently, the bird doesn’t have nerve endings in portions of its feet.)

3. Turkeys’ second act set in Frying Pan. After the first pardon, the first President Bush said, “He’s been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.” That was, err, Frying Pan Park, in Herndon, Va. Other presidential turkeys have been sent to Disneyland or Disney World. Now, the turkeys go to Mount Vernon.

4. President Abraham Lincoln and apocryphal turkey lore. Lincoln might have pardoned the first turkey — but for a different holiday, says the White House blog: “According to one story, Lincoln’s son Tad begged his father to write out a presidential pardon for the bird meant for the family’s Christmas table.” There’s no documentation of this happening, so the story might be another Lincoln myth.

5. Presidential turkey’s deluxe suite. The role of pardoned turkey comes with some pretty plush accommodations. Picture this year’s turkey kicking back at the W Hotel, where, FishbowlDC reports, the fowl stayed before the ceremony. He was to be fed “berries, acorn and corn. No word on champagne or in-room massage,” reports Fishbowl’s Betsy Rothstein.

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