The president cares about the poultry, if not the pop stars.
Although Biden called it “the biggest edition of this wonderful White House Thanksgiving tradition,” the event felt remarkably breezy and forgettable — even by turkey-pardon standards.
Maybe it’s not so bad. With two wars raging and the government constantly on the edge of shutdown, perhaps now was not the time to celebrate also much. Last month, the White House decided to ground the B-52s, the planned entertainment at the state dinner for Australia, citing the political climate. Things haven’t gotten much funnier since then.
Biden was 25 minutes late Monday afternoon. Children sitting on their parents’ shoulders had begun to squirm restlessly. After reaching the podium around 12:40 p.m., Biden pulled off his aviators and said, “Before I begin, I want to ask for a vote: Do I free the turkeys today?”
“Yes” it had, according to a voice vote.
Biden mentioned that he is more comfortable with chickens because they never get that big. He touted his administration’s investment in rural agriculture and paid tribute to former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who died Sunday at age 96.
He also made at least one forgery that may warrant a pardon from the Swifties — which is especially unfortunate because Liberty and Bell are fans of Taylor Swift, according to a wild claim made by Steve Lykken, president of the National Turkey Federation.
“Just to get here, Liberty and Bell had to beat some tough odds and competition,” Biden said. He added that a turkey coming to the White House was “harder than getting a ticket to the Renaissance tour or … Britney’s tour. She’s down — it’s kind of hot in Brazil right now.”
He appeared to be referring to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. A fan died on Friday after attending the show in Rio de Janeiro during a record heat wave.
“That’s a big bird, man,” Biden said as one of the turkeys was brought up on stage. Then he raised his hand. “I hereby apologize to Liberty and Bell. … Okay. Congratulations, birds.”
The ceremony is considered the unofficial start of the holiday in Washington, the president noted, but the Bidens got a head start Sunday when they attended a “Friendsgiving” with service members and military families at a naval hangar in Norfolk before introducing an early showing of the movie “Wonka” .
While pretty much everyone involved talked about the phrase “76th annual pardon” — including Biden, who assured the crowd he wasn’t the first — it’s not exactly true.
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The Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation began giving turkeys to the president in 1947. That was the same year the government approved “poultry-free Thursdays,” which were intended to encourage food conservation in the wake of World War II, but which, of course, were infuriating the poultry industry and restaurant owners. Farmers began sending President Harry S. Truman boxes of live chickens in a protest called “Hens for Harry”.
Has Truman pardoned turkeys? Probably not. The next year, he accepted two more, saying they would “come in handy” for a holiday meal. Over the years, there were sporadic turkey pardons by presidents (John F. Kennedy in 1963) and first ladies (Patricia Nixon in 1973, Rosalynn Carter in 1978).
But the annual tradition began with President George HW Bush in 1989. “But let me assure you, and this fine empty turkey, he will not end up on anybody’s dinner table,” Bush said, according to the White House Historical Association, as animal rights activists protested nearby. The turkey will instead “live out his days at a children’s farm not far from here.”
The ceremony has taken place ever since, even spreading to lower levels of government. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) will spare the life of a turkey named Dolly Pardon this week.
All that history, of course, means about squat to Liberty and Bell. Their whirlwind trip to DC included the usual stay at the Willard Hotel, where they met the public for the first time on Sunday — and a bunch of poultry parazzies.
“They checked in, they went up to their rooms, they saw the map of what to do in the city, they had a hot tub, and I heard they also had something out of the minibar,” the hotel’s general manager, Markus Platzer, said during a media preview. His claims could not be independently verified.
Now the turkeys are heading back north, where they will live out their days at the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
They should be happy there, according to Biden.
“They love Honeycrisp apples,” he said of the turkeys. “Not bad, huh? Ice hockey. I sure wanted to see them play ice hockey.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the National Turkey Federation as the National Turkey Foundation. The article has been corrected.