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A Thanksgiving lesson in forgiveness

by Michael P. Branch

Published in the November/December 2011 issue of Orion magazine



Art: Henry Thielker

A FEW DAYS BEFORE Thanksgiving, my wife, Eryn, came home from town with our two young daughters, both of whom had been administered the traditional Thanksgiving myth at school that day. Three-year-old Caroline was as proud as could be of her paper turkey, made from a cut-out drawing of her own little hand. And Hannah Virginia, our loquacious six-year-old, began blurting out her holiday lecture the moment she came through the door: “Dad, I bet you didn’t know that Thanksgiving comes from the Pilgrims and the Indians helping each other a bunch and then having a peace party and eating a really big supper with crazy-colored corn and turkeys and those turkeys were wild!” With this she donned her construction-paper Pilgrim hat with its big, fake buckle and gave me a huge smile.

I took a long sip of my whiskey and tried to formulate a response. The Thanksgiving feast the girls had learned about did in fact occur—at Plymouth Plantation in 1621—but by the following year violent conflict between colonists and Native Americans had already erupted, and devastating Indian wars soon swept New England. There weren’t many turkeys shared at Mystic River in 1637, for example, when the Pilgrims burned and hacked to death at least four hundred Pequots, mostly women and children, as they slept. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford—who had actually been present at that much-celebrated first Thanksgiving—had this to say about the slaughter: “It was a fearful sight to see [the Indians] thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and [we] gave the praise thereof to God.” Just as I was pondering how best to explain this genocide in a way that might somehow be compatible with the ennobling concept of Thanksgiving the girls had learned at school, Hannah pointed excitedly at the muted TV behind me and shouted, “It’s turkey time!” I turned to see that the news had given way to the image of a large, white turkey. A turkey at the White House, in fact. A turkey that was about to receive a formal pardon from the president of the United States.

For many people, Thanksgiving is about bringing together family and friends; for some, it is centered around the ancient autumnal harvest festival; for others, it is an opportunity to count and express our most precious blessings; for yet others, it is a holiday devoted to copious amounts of football and alcohol. I believe deeply in all these versions, but for me Thanksgiving is very much about the pardoning of turkeys.

The tradition of the presidential turkey pardon is wonderfully rife with distortion, ambiguity, and error—as all good stories should be—but what is most perplexing about this bizarre ritual is our uncertainty about its origins. Some claim that the turkey pardon began with President Lincoln, who, hoping to promote national unity amid the social fragmentation of the Civil War, did in fact declare our first official day of national thanksgiving in 1863. That same year Lincoln’s ten-year-old son, Tad, so the story goes, became so attached to a Christmas turkey that the president relented and agreed to spare “Jack” from the family table. More common is the claim that Harry Truman was the first president to save a turkey, but while Truman was indeed the first commander in chief to receive a holiday gift bird from the National Turkey Federation—a custom begun in 1947 and continued to this day—the evidence suggests that Truman, like most presidents who followed him, hadn’t the slightest compunction about eating his gift. It was President Kennedy who first broke with his predecessors by declaring, just four days before he was assassinated, that—despite the sign reading GOOD EATING that the Turkey Federation had hung around the bird’s neck—he would let his fifty-five-pound gobbler live.

Even though President Reagan delivered a few respectable one-liners about sparing his turkey (and was every bit as charismatic with his bird as he was with that cute chimp in the movie Bedtime for Bonzo), the Gipper promptly gobbled up all of his gobblers. And it is here that bird pardoning lore moves from speculation to historical fact, for in 1989 George Herbert Walker Bush had the honor of becoming the first president to formally issue a pardon to a turkey—an innovative leadership move that no doubt helped to secure his legacy. Since Bush Senior, every president has participated annually in this strange ritual—which held special pleasure for presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, each of whom embraced the event as an occasion for the kind of political theater that offered welcome distraction from the kind of political theater that occupied them at all other times. It seemed to me that President Clinton always shot his birds an amorous look while pardoning them, and his uncharacteristic restraint in looking but not touching may have been indirectly attributable to our old friend William Bradford, who, in his seventeenth-century page turner, Of Plymouth Plantation, carefully documented the execution of one of his fellow Pilgrims for the unpardonable sin of sodomizing a turkey. Bradford’s troubling account leaves me with three questions: Can there be anything more disgusting than having sex with poultry? How, exactly, would you go about doing it, anyway? And, finally, is this really something you ought to kill a guy for? It seems to me that it would have been more humane, more punishing, and also more entertaining to simply make fun of him for the rest of his life. It wouldn’t take much—you could just gobble a little under your breath as he passed your pew in church. Of course, none of the Pilgrims’ distasteful Indian killing or turkey raping stopped President George W. Bush from executing a 2007 pardon for “May” and “Flower,” birds whose names offered a clear allusion to Bradford’s intrepid congregation.

The tradition of the presidential turkey pardon has continued to evolve in surprising ways. In the early years the exonerated gobblers were sent to Kidwell Farm, a petting zoo in northern Virginia where, as turkey rock stars, they lived a life featuring excessive drug use and media attention but only the brief fame their overbred and steroid-addled condition would allow. Since 2005, however, the ritual has become more surreal: the pardoned bird is now immediately flown to Disneyland or Disney World, where it serves as grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day parade at the creepily self-proclaimed “Happiest Place on Earth.” And if the idea of Americans spending their Thanksgiving holiday at a theme park watching a fat bird lead a Mickey Mouse parade seems depressing, it is encouraging to note that the birds are flown to their new posts first class, so while in transit they enjoy a comfortably wide seat and a lot of free gin-and-tonics. It beats the hell out of that cramped poultry yard with its hormone-dusted cracked corn, and since the birds are so overbred as to find it barely possible to waddle (pardon the pun) much less fly, their trip to the Happiest Place is in fact the only flight they will ever know.

President Obama apparently recognized the surreal quality of the ceremony when he remarked, “There are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office. And then there are moments like this, where I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland.” Of course now that the pardoned bird is a national celebrity, it has become necessary to pardon an alternate bird each year in case the National Turkey is unable to fulfill its duties—as occurred in 2008, when “Pecan” fell suddenly ill and required its understudy, “Pumpkin,” to receive the honors. A similar rationale informs the security protocol preventing the president and vice-president from traveling together. So if something unfortunate should befall President Obama—if, say, he gets too close to the propane tank out back of the White House while sneaking a cigarette break during a cabinet meeting—I find it comforting that Joe Biden would survive to pardon the next brace of toms.

In our family it is a hallowed tradition—one as sacred and as ceremoniously performed as cheering on the opening day of baseball season—to witness and celebrate the annual presidential pardoning of the turkeys. Indeed, I consider myself the Cal Ripken of turkey pardoning, having never missed one since the initiation of the ritual more than twenty years ago. As is the case with other Thanksgiving traditions, I find it helpful to drink while participating in this one, so I annually toast the birds’ reprieve with stout tumblers of what I call Meleagris gallopavo cocktail, which is Wild Turkey straight up, the “cock-tail” mixed in only as an avian pun. After all, nothing is more threatening to one’s mental health than to be caught uncomfortably sober when it comes time for the leader of the free world to issue a televised and legally binding pardon to a bird.

Although I have long found the pardoning of the turkeys to be among the more entertaining things to transpire in our nation’s capital each year, even the levity of this ritual has become compromised by politics. In particular, the bloodthirsty vegetarians have complained that the annual pardoning amounts to free advertising for the poultry industry, and have suggested that the president would set a better example by accepting a “cruelty-free” Tofurkey, whose life before being pressed into a gelatinous loaf of shimmering curd presumably consisted of cavorting innocently through fragrant bean fields while in absolutely no danger of being sodomized. The Humane Society has also objected, making the hard-to-dispute point that turkeys produced by industrial poultry farming have about as unpleasant a life as one can imagine, and while two birds do get to fly first class to Anaheim or Orlando each year, 250 million others aren’t so lucky. Each year following the pardoning, PETA is served a whopping slice of free media pie when it describes in gory detail the miserable lives of these factory-farmed birds.

My objection to such complaints is certainly not that they are groundless—they must be at least as compelling as the idea that the leader of 300 million people should waste his time, not to mention his political capital, pardoning a turkey—but rather that they are unpardonably lacking in humor. It is not, after all, a Supreme Court deliberation we are talking about, but rather a turkey pardoning. So here, perhaps, is a useful rule of thumb for animal-rights activists: if George W. Bush and a turkey are more entertaining than you are, it can hardly be surprising that your client is headed for decapitation. With a little creativity, such activists might dramatize their objections in ways that would be more in the spirit of the event. How about staging a parody of the turkey pardoning in which a PETA activist, costumed as a giant turkey, pardons Dubya for his misdeeds? The potential for humor here is also suggested by the comic irony of an actual event involving none other than Sarah Palin. Back in the days before Fox and failed reality shows and rewriting the history of the American Revolution, the Alaska governor, having just pardoned a turkey (yes, many state governors also participate in this tomfoolery), waxed rhapsodic on camera about the virtues of compassion and forgiveness, while unbeknownst to her a worker in the background was busy decapitating and bleeding out turkeys. The YouTube video of this interview, which is far funnier than any Saturday Night Live sendup of it could possibly be, has been viewed more than 1 million times.

If I were to object to the turkey pardoning—which, of course, I haven’t the slightest intention of doing—I would do so on the grounds that to render a turkey a fit subject for pardon, we must presume the bird’s guilt. To be pardoned, one must first be in violation of some communal law or code. While enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, for example, we don’t “beg your pardon” unless we belch, fart, or otherwise violate the community ethic by which the meal is conducted. A pardon is both an expression of mercy and a certificate of absolution; it is both amnesty and exoneration.

To pardon, after all, is to forgive. And, if we’re talking about a turkey, it becomes difficult to discern what criminal or immoral behavior on the bird’s part may be said to establish the necessary preconditions for its forgiveness. Now if Ben Franklin had won the argument, and the turkey had become our national symbol, the case might be different. You may recall that Ben, whom many consider the true Father of our Country, argued that the bald eagle made a poor national symbol because “he is a bird of bad moral character.” This, incidentally, from a man who advocated choosing for a mistress an older woman because “there is no hazard of children, which irregularly produced may be attended with much inconvenience”; who invented bifocals so he might focus on prostitutes both up close and from slightly farther away; and who is credited with proffering the timeless verity that “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” So much for moral character. Unfortunately, Ben’s failed lobbying prevented the fat gobbler from making it onto the presidential seal, though I do still like to imagine a plump tom turkey with an olive branch in one scrabbly claw and a sheaf of gleaming arrows in the other, as if to say: I’m a jolly, peaceful old bird, but don’t fuck with me. Given its failure to achieve the status of national icon, I would argue that the turkey—being innocent of everything save its cowardly squandering of the rare opportunity to peck viciously at the president of the United States—cannot in fact be legally pardoned. And if the annual pardon is both presidentially sanctioned and demonstrably illegal, then it is also necessarily unconstitutional, and therefore constitutes legitimate grounds for impeachment.

My point here is not that a U.S. president should be impeached for pardoning a turkey—though I won’t stand in the way if that’s how it ultimately goes down—but rather that we might benefit from asking what human vanity or lust for power inspired the presumption that we could pardon a bird. On his final day in office, Bill Clinton pardoned 140 people, including a few whose deeds might lead you to conclude, by comparison, that even the turkey sodomizer wasn’t such a bad guy. Upon what grounds were these many villains exonerated? Just these: I’m an outgoing president, and you can’t stop me. That is to say, the grounds of power alone, and not those of morality or justice. Although most industrialized democracies on the planet have abolished capital punishment, more than two-thirds of U.S. states continue to respond to violent crime with the awkwardly violent response of sending people to the death chamber. And we still aren’t done quibbling about what constitutes torture, and whether our nation should sanction its use in extreme circumstances. But, as Thomas Jefferson well knew, it is the political expediency of those in power that defines the extremity of the circumstances. Men, as James Madison observed, are not angels.

I realize this is pretty heavy stuff to include in an essay about pardoning turkeys—and for that I hope I too may be pardoned—but the plain truth that we are so flawed, so very far from being angels, is directly relevant to this story. It is we who burn the village, execute the criminal, approve the torture. How is it that we are so sure of ourselves, so certain about the infallibility of our judgment and our authority? I wonder if there is some relationship between our presumption of power and this desire to pardon—even the desire to pardon an innocent, feathered, nonhuman being. I wonder if perhaps we have a vague sense that it is some guilt of our own that must be assuaged: that we, whose power has so often been used to judge, might ourselves be redeemed by some corollary power to forgive, that exoneration might at the eleventh hour become the bright shadow of a looming condemnation.

Of course the National Turkey—which, for all we know, might wisely prefer death to Disney World in any case—doesn’t require our mercy in the slightest. It is we who need the bird, desperately so, for through it we are permitted to express our deep human desire to grant amnesty to those who would otherwise suffer. From where I sit it is difficult to determine whether the granting of a pardon constitutes an assertion of power or a relinquishment of it. But for allowing us a momentary, if symbolic, reprieve from our role as judge and executioner, we have ample reason to give thanks to these turkeys—so many thanks, in fact, that it probably is a good idea to be on the safe side and pardon one every now and then.

I pour another tumbler of bourbon and look again at Caroline’s sweet little handprint turkey. Then I look at Hannah’s beaming face, which so clearly registers her innocent excitement that President Obama—with his own two little daughters by his side—has made it possible for these otherwise doomed gobblers to go free. I think about that mythic first Thanksgiving that we describe to our children, even as a long shadow of violence threatens to reduce it to historical insignificance. I think of the presidential turkey pardoning being performed in a world so replete with greed and conflict, suffering and injustice. I think of the fact that the ratio of turkeys annually pardoned and given free gin-and-tonics to those raised under horrendous conditions and unceremoniously slaughtered is approximately 1:125,000,000.

“Girls!” I suddenly hear myself exclaim. “This is the best day ever! The president has made sure that the turkeys will be free, and now they get to fly in a plane to Disney World, and they even get to be the stars in the big parade! And today you girls have learned all about how Thanksgiving is a holiday of peace and forgiveness, and soon we’ll have a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner of our own. This is truly a day to count our blessings!”

Eryn instantly furrows her brow, as if contemplating whether to take my bottle away. Then Caroline starts counting aloud, “One, two, free, four!” and Hannah claps her hands and chants, “The birds are free! The birds are free!” I glance again at Eryn, who is looking at me as if I’ve started something she will have to finish. It is a difficult moment, I must admit. And so, I do the only thing I can. I do what I think any father would have done under the circumstances. I set my whiskey down slowly, and then begin jumping up and down, clapping and shouting along with Hannah, and then Caroline, and, at last, even Eryn: “The birds are free! The birds are free! The birds are free!” Before our celebration reaches its breathless finish, we have segued from our avian freedom chant into “Turkey in the Straw,” “Five Fat Turkeys Are We,” and, for our big closer, “Freebird.” There is much playing of air guitar, and when we finish singing we all stand panting, heads bowed, holding our imaginary lighters ceremoniously above our heads.

It will be all too soon before my children’s veneration of the First Thanksgiving gives way to a painful awareness of the Mystic River Massacre. In the meantime we will celebrate not history, which is so often a monument to human failure, but rather myth, which is the necessary dream that a better future might excuse the errors of the past. Perhaps we each deserve a pardon. Maybe, whether we are doomed prisoner or executioner, we each need to receive that last-minute phone call in what would otherwise be our death chamber. We forgive the birds, and in so doing, we hope desperately that they might forgive us.

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Michael P. Branch lives with his family in the high desert of western Nevada. He has published five books and writes a monthly blog, Rants from the Hill, for High Country News.

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