Thanksgiving: When Dramaturgy and Reality Collide

One of my favorite recent research projects was uncovering the truth about the presidential Thanksgiving turkey pardoning ceremony for David Mamet’s November, which (like both Prez. W. and President Clinton) gets the history wrong. Despite popular belief, the actual tradition of the president officially pardoning two turkeys (the National Turkey and the Alternate National Turkey) only goes back to the first President Bush. Folklore says that Lincoln spared his son’s pet turkey, Jack, and Kennedy apparently did suggest he would let live the turkey he was gifted (just days before his own assassination). There are some great photographs of a number of presidents with their Thanksgiving (or Christmas) turkeys, but they all ate them. Reagan was the first president to use the word “pardon” in reference to a Thanksgiving turkey, but he was making a joke to dodge more serious questions about the Iran-Contra affair. You can read all about it here: Turkey Pardoning.

I was very pleased to hear Obama get the history of turkey pardoning right yesterday, when he spared Courage and his substitute Carolina!

President Obama: Now, the National Turkey Federation has been bringing its finest turkeys to the White House for more than 50 years (True). I’m told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their turkeys (True). You can’t fault them for that; that’s a good-looking bird. President Kennedy was even given a turkey with a sign around its neck that said, “Good Eatin’, Mr. President” (True). But he showed mercy and he said, “Let’s keep him going.” (something like that) And 20 years ago this Thanksgiving, the first President Bush issued the first official presidential pardon for a turkey (True).

Today, I am pleased to announce that thanks to the interventions of Malia and Sasha — because I was planning to eat this sucker — “Courage” will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate. Later today, he’ll head to Disneyland, where he’ll be grand marshal of tomorrow’s parade. And just in case “Courage” can’t fulfill his responsibilities, Walter brought along another turkey, “Carolina,” as an alternate, the stand-in (True) . . .

You know, there are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office. And then there are moments like this — (laughter) — where I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland (True). (Laughter.) But every single day, I am thankful for the extraordinary responsibility that the American people have placed in me. I am humbled by the privilege that it is to serve them, and the tremendous honor it is to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the finest military in the world — and I want to wish a Happy Thanksgiving to every service member at home or in harm’s way. We’re proud of you and we are thinking of you and we’re praying for you . . .

In more tranquil times, it’s easy to notice our many blessings. It’s even easier to take them for granted. But in times like these, they resonate a bit more powerfully. When President Lincoln set aside the National Day of Thanksgiving for the first time—to celebrate America’s “fruitful fields,” “healthful skies,” and the “strength and vigor” of the American people—it was in the midst of the Civil War, just when the future of our very union was most in doubt. So think about that. When times were darkest, President Lincoln understood that our American blessings shined brighter than ever. (Ok. Yes. But to give Washington his due, in 1789 our Union’s first president proclaimed that the people of the United States should observe Thursday, November 26, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Granted, while Washington’s proclamation mandated a specific day of celebration, it did not establish a recurring annual holiday.) . . .

Now, before this turkey gets too nervous that Bo* will escape and screw up this pardon—or before I change my mind, I hereby pardon “Courage” so that he can live out the rest of his days in peace and tranquility in Disneyland. (* Interestingly, Bush the 1st mentioned his pet dog during the first turkey pardoning ceremony: “Millie has been put upstairs, looking wistfully out of the window, I’m sure. But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy—he’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now—[he will] live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”)

And to every American, I want to wish you, on behalf of myself, Malia, Sasha, and Michelle, the happiest of Thanksgivings. Thank you very much, everybody.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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