The Unpardonables

Today, President Obama will formally pardon “Cobbler” and “Gobbler,” two nineteen-week-old, forty-pound tom turkeys, saving them from the fate that’s in store for 46 million other birds this Thanksgiving. The president will probably offer a wisecrack or two, perhaps there will even be a speech. Then he’ll send Cobbler and Gobbler to the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Virginia, where, we can only assume, they’ll spend afternoons playing shuffleboard with their fellow turkey retirees.

The strange tradition of turkey pardoning—and the truth and myth of Thanksgiving itself—was the topic of Michael P. Branch’s essay “Freebirds,” published in the November/December 2011 issue of Orion:

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…. 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.”

That last tradition—the one involving the Disney corporation—is now, thankfully, finished. But the pardoning continues. This year, the two star turkeys are from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. (The second bird’s a backup, a “vice turkey,” you might say, in case bird number one goes down in the line of duty.)

Following what must have been a hard-knock upbringing in a place called Cargill Value Added Meats Retail, the turkeys have made the trip to Washington: since Tuesday, they’ve been enjoying Jacuzzi baths and room service at the W Washington D.C. Hotel, just down the road from the White House. (It’s interesting to note that as these two turkeys are pardoned, the White House chef will be cooking other turkeys—twenty-pound organic turkeys—for the First Family’s Thanksgiving feast.)

Bizarre poultry pampering aside, what does it mean for a nation of turkey eaters to pardon a turkey? Can we pardon a turkey—an innocent bystander, if there ever was one—in the first place? And what, really, should we be celebrating on Thanksgiving? Mike Branch again:

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.

Indeed. And whether you’re looking forward to turkey or tofurkey, history or myth, there’s a lot to be thankful for this year. From all of us at Orion, happy Thanksgiving.