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A presidential pardon that's no turkey

A presidential pardon that's no turkey
President Barack Obama, with National Turkey Federation Chairman Jihad Douglas, pardons the National Thanksgiving Turkey "Abe" on Nov. 25, 2015. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Of all the White House feats of public relations stagecraft, few appear as meaningless as the annual Thanksgiving presidential turkey pardoning.

It has no effect on any policy. There's no serious message under the frothy ceremony. And the turkeys don't seem to appreciate how fortunate they are to dodge the butcher. Furthermore, it's a little perverse to celebrate not cooking two farm-raised turkeys (one the officially pardoned bird; the other a similarly lucky alternate) while millions of their brethren are at that moment being prepped for starring roles in traditional Thanksgiving meals.

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It is not even a very long-held tradition. Though the National Turkey Federation has been presenting holiday turkeys to presidents for nearly 70 years, it wasn't until 1989 that President George H.W. Bush made turkey pardoning an official thing. Previous presidents chose to spare their birds only occasionally. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy sent his Thanksgiving turkey back to the farm after the presentation, perhaps being turned off by the sign around its neck wishing the president "good eating." Few things are as unappetizing as having one's food comment on its imminent demise.

President Ronald Reagan may have inadvertently provided his successor with the inspiration for ceremonial turkey pardons in 1987. During the annual turkey presentation that year, ABC's Sam Donaldson wouldn't stop asking serious questions about the possible fate of Reagan aides Oliver North and John M. Poindexter for their roles in the Iran-Contra scandal. "Mr. President, do you intend to pardon them on Thanksgiving Day?" Donaldson asked. "Him?" said Reagan, pointing to a turkey with mock seriousness.

As transparent a plug for the poultry industry as it may be, however, this ritual of fall is not without its charms. There's something humanizing about powerful people posing next to (and some times stroking) a portly, pecking turkey. Governors of some states (though not California) follow the practice as well.

President Obama has taken the turkey pardoning tradition to new levels of, well, bemusement during his tenure in the White House. With his daughters at his side, Obama abandons his usual, buttoned-down demeanor to crack silly jokes. (Actually, at this year's ceremony he was accompanied by his nephews; he explained that his daughters "just couldn't take my jokes anymore.") During one ceremony in 2014, he turned retrospective, acknowledging the absurdity of annual event but pointing out that it's a nice change from the daily grind.

"It is a bit puzzling that I do this every year," he said. "I will say I enjoy it because, with all the tough stuff that swirls around this office, it is nice once in a while just to say 'Happy Thanksgiving.'"

A bit of a break from the awesome responsibility of leading the Free World? Perhaps this pardoning tradition isn't quite the turkey of an event it seems to be.

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