The president does right by the poultry, if not the pop stars.
Updated November 20, 2023 at 3:57 p.m. EST|Published November 20, 2023 at 3:19 p.m. EST
Though Biden called it “the biggest edition of this wonderful White House Thanksgiving tradition,” the event felt exceedingly breezy and unmemorable — even by turkey-pardon standards.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. With two wars raging and the government perpetually on the edge of shutdown, perhaps it wasn’t the time to celebrate too 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 mirthier since then.
Biden was 25 minutes late Monday afternoon. Children perched on their parents’ shoulders had begun wriggling restlessly. After reaching the lectern around 12:40 p.m., Biden pulled off his aviators and said, “Before I begin, I’m going to ask for a vote: Do I free the turkeys today?”
The “ayes” had it, according to a voice vote.
Biden mentioned that he’s more comfortable with chickens because they never grow that big. He touted his administration’s investment in rural farms and paid respects to former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who died Sunday at 96.
He also made at least one gaffe that may require pardoning from Swifties — which is particularly unfortunate, because Liberty and Bell are fans of Taylor Swift, according to a wild claim made by Steve Lykken, chairman 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 making it to the White House was “harder than getting a ticket to the Renaissance tour or … Britney’s tour. She’s down in — it’s kind of warm in Brazil right now.”
He seemed to be referring to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. A fan died 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 to the stage. He then raised his hand. “I hereby pardon Liberty and Bell. … All right. Congratulations, birds.”
The ceremony is considered the unofficial start of the holidays in Washington, the president noted, but the Bidens got a head start on Sunday, when they attended a “Friendsgiving” with service members and military families in a naval hangar in Norfolk, before introducing an early screening of the film “Wonka.”
Though just about everybody involved bandied about the term “76th annual pardon” — including Biden, who assured the crowd that he wasn’t at the first one — that’s not exactly true.
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The Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation began gifting turkeys to the president in 1947. It was the same year the government endorsed “poultryless Thursdays,” which was meant to encourage food conservation in the wake of World War II but naturally outraged the poultry industry and restaurant owners. Farmers began sending President Harry S. Truman crates of live chickens in a protest dubbed “Hens for Harry.”
Did Truman pardon 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 H.W. Bush in 1989. “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table,” Bush said, according to the White House Historical Association, as animal rights activists protested nearby. The turkey instead will “live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”
The ceremony has taken place ever since, even spread into lower rungs 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 D.C. included the usual stay at the Willard hotel, where on Sunday they first met the public — and a gaggle of poult-parazzi.
“They checked in, they went up to their rooms, they saw the map with what to do in the city, they had a bubble bath, and I heard that 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 headed back north, where they’ll 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 about the turkeys. “Not bad, huh? Ice hockey. I sure in hell would like to see them play ice hockey.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the National Turkey Federation as the National Turkey Foundation. The article has been corrected.
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