The turkeys weren’t taking questions.
Moments after President Biden pardoned Chocolate and Chip, two hefty gobblers from a couple states south, they let out loud, ecstasy-filled gobbles that resounded throughout the Rose Garden ceremony — but declined to make further comment. Theirs were not the only animal cries punctuating Monday’s ceremony, as a (presumably) salivating Commander, Biden’s German shepherd, watched from the White House’s second-floor balcony and occasionally let loose a commanding woof. Sorry, Commander, you’re a good boy, but these turkeys are free.
The birds, presented per tradition by the National Turkey Federation, hail from Monroe, N.C., where they were raised by NTF Chairman Ronnie Parker.
Later in the afternoon, Biden and first lady Jill Biden were scheduled to travel to the U.S. Marine Corps base in Cherry Point, N.C. — which resides on the Eastern Seaboard, a 250-mile drive from Chocolate and Chip’s hometown — to dine with service members and their families. Biden referred to it as a “Friendsgiving.” (Presidents, they’re just like us!) On Tuesday, they will jet up to Nantucket, Mass., where they’ll celebrate the holiday with family before returning to the District on Sunday.
Biden appeared to be in jolly spirits Monday, aviator sunglasses on, unleashing yet another torrent of terrible jokes and groanworthy puns. Was there a reference to “fowl play”? You bet. Did he promise not to “gobble up too much time”? Well, people wouldn’t call him Uncle Joe if he didn’t.
Biden promised to keep things short, acknowledging the nippy day by saying, “Nobody likes it when their turkey gets cold.” Pretty sure even the turkeys groaned at that one.
“They listened to a lot of music to prepare for the crowd noise today,” Biden added, before laughing. “That’s real hard work.”
His good mood wasn’t particularly surprising, given the red wave that wasn’t during the recent midterm elections, a fact he made sure to riff on during an otherwise politics-less ceremony, saying, “The only red wave this season is going to be if German shepherd Commander knocks over the cranberry sauce on our table.”
The turkeys, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy themselves despite wearing nothing but feathers to protect themselves from the sharp chill, as the temperature hovered in the 40s during the bright D.C. morning. More likely, they were looking forward to their new home at North Carolina State University. Though, as Biden said: “When we told them they were joining the Wolfpack, they got a little scared. But then we explained it was just a mascot.”
Frankly, their good mood was no surprise either, as turkeys have enjoyed fairly nice press this year. The Washington Post’s homepage Monday included stories on “vegetarian and vegan mains that may eclipse that turkey” and a piece on what good cuddlers they are.
“Now, based on their temperament and commitment to being productive members of society, I hereby pardon Chocolate and Chip,” Biden said around 11:31 a.m. The turkeys gobbled as if on cue.
The 46-pound Chocolate was placed on a table adorned with an autumnal flower display, while the 47-pound Chip wandered the grass of the Rose Garden as if he owned the place. Biden offered the microphone to Chocolate, but he declined to comment.
Unlike Saturday’s White House wedding of Naomi Biden and Peter Neal, the turkey pardoning was open to the press, which arrived in gaggles. “We had a 12-year-old with press credentials today,” one incredulous guard said, chuckling. Indeed, the future of journalism looked bright as multiple young reporters proudly stood with notebooks in hand among the grizzled vets of the White House press corps.
Unfortunately, most of said reporters were placed in areas without sightlines of the president or the turkeys whose lives he was sparing — nor, strangely, were they allowed to watch on a live-feed monitor placed in the press area. Some tried to leave, while others watched on their phones a live feed of what was happening not 75 feet away. The reporters who snooped on the weekend’s wedding via binoculars might have had a better view of what they were covering.
Most agree that the tradition dates to 1947 — indeed, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dubbed Monday’s event the “75th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation” at a press briefing last week. That’s when the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation began gifting birds to the commander in chief — at the time, President Harry S. Truman. The timing wasn’t exactly arbitrary. Earlier that same year, the government had endorsed “poultryless Thursdays,” encouraging food conservation in the wake of World War II but prompting outrage from the industry. It led to a protest campaign dubbed “Hens for Harry” in which farmers sent crates of live chickens to the White House.
But there’s no proof Truman pardoned his turkey that year. It seems much more likely that he devoured it, because the next year he accepted two more birds as a gift, saying they would “come in handy” for Christmas dinner.
Turkeys and the White House have a longer, more storied history, according to the White House Historical Association. In 1873, Rhode Island poultry slinger Horace Vose gifted a turkey he had raised to President Ulysses S. Grant — and spent the next four decades providing dozens upon dozens of the birds to presidents for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.
For most of American history, if a president happened upon a turkey at the White House, he was eating it. The exceptions proving this rule appeared sporadically. One 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks notes that President Abraham Lincoln granted clemency to a gobbler back in 1863. President John F. Kennedy reportedly let one live through the holiday in 1963, and turkeys presented to first ladies Patricia Nixon in 1973 and Rosalynn Carter in 1978 were sent to live on farms.
The actual pardoning has been an annual tradition only since 1989, according to the WHHA, when President George H.W. Bush said of his lucky bird while animal rights activists picketed nearby: “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 presented a presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.” Bush kept the tradition alive throughout his presidency, as has everyone who’s held the office since.
All that history didn’t mean much to Chocolate and Chip, who fluffed their feathers and took in the president’s remarks — presumably thrilled at the prospect of joining such past pardoned birds as Peanut Butter and Jelly and Mac and Cheese in the lovely tradition of not being stuffed and roasted.
And, though they refused to chat with the gathered press, they did chime in when Biden closed the ceremony with a plea for unity.
“Let’s remember one thing. This is the United States of America. The United States of America. There’s not a single solitary thing beyond our capacity as a nation, nothing beyond our capacity, if we do it together. United. United,” Biden said, as Chocolate swung his head forward, red wattle swaying in the light breeze, and let out a tremendous gobble.