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The turkey pardon is America's most absurd holiday tradition

U.S. President Barack Obama approaches the 2012 National Thanksgiving Turkey Cobbler as National Turkey Federation Chairman Steve Willardsen (2nd L) and handler Bob Evans (L) hold the turkey during a Rose Garden turkey pardon event November 21, 2012
U.S. President Barack Obama approaches the 2012 National Thanksgiving Turkey Cobbler as National Turkey Federation Chairman Steve Willardsen (2nd L) and handler Bob Evans (L) hold the turkey during a Rose Garden turkey pardon event November 21, 2012
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sure, there are lots of silly holiday traditions out there. But for sheer gruesomeness, it's hard to beat the annual White House turkey pardon.

On Wednesday, the National Turkey Federation will bring two male turkeys to the Rose Garden. The birds get voter-suggested names like Gobbler and Cobbler. President Obama will crack a few jokes, get a zillion photos taken, and then issue "pardons." Instead of becoming tasty entrees, the turkeys will get to live out their lives at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, as tourist attractions.

This event usually attracts the fury of animal rights' groups like PETA, who note that the birds haven't actually committed any crimes. And fair enough! But if anything, that understates how truly bizarre the whole ritual is. The pardoned turkeys go on to lead miserable lives. The tradition itself has its origins in the Iran-Contra scandal. And the event is a reminder of how seldom modern presidents use their pardon power to spare actual human beings.

The most important issue in the world? Obviously not. But ridiculous? Yep. Let's tally up the oddities:

1) The "pardoned" turkeys go on to lead miserable lives

At two feet tall and about 38 pounds, two full-grown Broad Breasted White domesticated turkeys are paraded before members of the news media on November 26, 2013. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

For starters, the "pardoned" turkeys don't get long to enjoy their newfound freedom. That's because the life of the modern-day turkey is basically all misery and suffering.

Today's most popular turkeys, the broad-breasted whites, aren't really built for a carefree life at the farm. They've been bred over many years to have oversized breasts and to convert feed into turkey meat as efficiently as possible. Those innovations have been great for humans — they help keep the cost of Thanksgiving dinner down — but they're not as much fun for the turkey.

Turkeys bred for food now grow to an average of 30 pounds, much bigger than their wild ancestors.  (The two turkeys that were pardoned in 2013, Caramel and Popcorn, weighed over 37 pounds apiece.) These domesticated turkeys are often so big that their skeletons can't support all that heft. They frequently develop bone deformities and degenerative joint diseases and suffer heart failure or bleeding around the kidneys. Many are incapable of breeding on their own:

(Wired)

So it's no surprise that most pardoned turkeys typically die within a year of their White House visit, their overburdened frame giving out at last. One of last year's turkeys, Popcorn, ended up passing away in the heat in June 2014 — after a mere half year of freedom. Caramel is still alive in Mount Vernon, though if history is anything to go on, his days are no doubt numbered.

This isn't an attempt to persuade anyone to go vegetarian. (I like turkey just fine, myself.) And, as Danielle Kurtzleben explains, there are ways to get humanely raised turkeys or heritage turkeys that don't have giant oversized breasts — though these turkeys are more expensive, which is why most Americans don't buy them.

No, the main point is that we don't really need an elaborate government ceremony designed to obscure the origins of our food. Last year, the White House wanted us to believe these turkeys would be living the high life, listening to Beyonce on the farm:

(White House)

Not so!

2) The turkey pardon's origins lie in the Iran-Contra scandal

The history of the turkey pardon is a contentious topic, but a plausible reading of the evidence suggests that the ritual originates with a glib one-liner by Ronald Reagan to distract attention from White House wrongdoing.

A quick recap: Back in 1947, the National Turkey Federation first began donating turkeys to the White House because they were alarmed by Harry Truman's proposal for "poultryless Thursdays." Truman accepted this lobbying morsel and ate the birds, as did his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Some accounts claim that John F. Kennedy invented the turkey pardon in 1963, but this appears to be yet another over-sentimental Kennedy myth. JFK simply thought his turkey was too scrawny and sent it back to the farm. "We'll let this one grow," he grumbled. (It's also true that Abraham Lincoln once spared a turkey destined for Christmas dinner after his son Tad intervened, but this wasn't a formal pardon.)

No, the idea of formally "pardoning" a turkey appears to have originated with Ronald Reagan in 1987. Journalists had been asking the president whether he would grant presidential pardons to key Iran-Contra figures like Oliver North and John Poindexter. Reagan changed the subject by quipping that he would have pardoned that year's Thanksgiving turkey had it not been on its way to a petting zoo already.

Two years later, in 1989, Reagan's successor George H.W. Bush made the turkey pardon an official White House event. But a ritual that basically started with a joke to deflect attention from scandal hardly seems like some sacred tradition that has to be maintained in perpetuity, no?

3) Presidential pardons are a sadly neglected issue

To top it all off, the turkey pardon is a reminder of how rarely modern presidents use their pardon power on actual people.

After this week, Obama will have "pardoned" 12 turkeys in all — turkeys that, again, have never been charged with a crime (as best we can tell, though if you have evidence to the contrary, by all means pass it along).

By contrast, Obama will have only pardoned only 52 human beings and commuted the sentences of 10 others. That's a record low for modern-day presidents. At this point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had pardoned 313 people. Harry Truman had pardoned 1,537 people. And those numbers have been shrinking over time:

One possible explanation for the decline is that it's much riskier for modern-day presidents to pardon people — particularly since there's so much media scrutiny on each and every release. (The last thing any president would want to do is pardon someone who then goes on to commit a high-profile crime.)

Still, some advocates would like to see Obama use his pardon power more frequently to correct some of the injustices in the US prison system. For instance, he could do more to help those imprisoned under the discriminatory drug policies of the 1980s that handed out stricter sentences for crack than they did for cocaine. (Congress has since reduced this infamous disparity for future crimes, but that law didn't apply to current prisoners — something Obama could fix.)

To be fair, Obama has been slowly starting to act on this. In April 2014, the administration announced new guidelines that would make it easier for existing prisoners to get their sentences reduced — mainly non-violent offenders who were convicted under now-obsolete drug laws that are widely deemed unjust. It remains to be seen how these new reforms work out. But this tends to get a lot less fanfare than the turkey business.

Further reading: Why are organic turkeys so expensive?

Note: I wrote about the ridiculousness of this tradition back in 2013, and this piece largely draws on that earlier one, with some updates on the pardon situation, new links, facts, etc.