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Biden pardons his first turkeys — but who will pardon his bad jokes?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/19/2021 Roxanne Roberts
President Biden pardons Peanut Butter. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg) © Al Drago/Bloomberg President Biden pardons Peanut Butter. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Joe Biden kicked off the holiday season Friday with the first pardon of his presidency — which went to turkeys Peanut Butter and Jelly. The Rose Garden ceremony was sandwiched between Biden’s colonoscopy that morning and a trip to Delaware where he will celebrate his 79th birthday Saturday. The tryptophan jokes write themselves. (Go ahead. We’ll wait.)

Peanut Butter and Jelly are huge domestic birds born and bred for this moment, which is less a pardon than a celebrity photo op for the National Turkey Federation. The names were created by schoolchildren in the turkeys’ home state of Indiana, who followed the grand tradition of picking goofy names for these regal avians, including past honorees Peas and Carrots, and Corn and Cob.

The president was in full Uncle Joe mode — playful, relaxed, delivering bad jokes with good humor. “As a University of Delaware man, I’m partial to Blue Hens,” said Biden. “But today, we’re going to talk turkey.” The audience chuckled politely, but Peanut Butter and Jelly responded with an enthusiastic gobble.

Corny? Of course. This annual ritual, generally received as a lighthearted break from presidential duties, is basically a chance for the Biden to make dad jokes. It’s also a chance for presidential speechwriters to inflict — nay, strut — the worst puns they dare to unleash on the American public. (An excerpt from President Barack Obama’s 2016 speech pardoning Tater and Tot: “I want to take a moment to recognize the brave turkeys that weren’t so lucky, who didn’t get to ride the gravy train to freedom. Who met their fate with courage and sacrifice and proved that they weren’t chicken.”)

Traditionally, the turkey pardon is also a cultural snapshot of the administration, a single moment that launches a thousand memes. Biden’s annual physical at Walter Reed earlier in the day included a “routine colonoscopy” that required a temporary transfer of power while he was asleep. And then … turkeys. “President Harris” trended on Twitter because social media thought it was, like, super clever.

Dating back decades, the ceremony has become so ingrained in White House history that it is rarely discussed for what it is: a free advertisement for the National Turkey Federation. It is a massive coup (or should we say coop?) to get an annual appearance with the president covered by every major media outlet in the country.

The White House dates the tradition to 1947, when the federation first presented a turkey to President Harry S. Truman to encourage Americans not to pardon the birds, but to roast them. Some presidents actually ate the turkeys; others demurred. In 1963, John F. Kennedy did not officially pardon the bird wearing a “Good Eating, Mr. President” sign around its neck but spared it with the words, “Let’s keep him going,” according to the White House Historical Association.


Video: Biden says pardoned turkeys will get ‘boosted,’ not ‘basted’ (Associated Press)

George H.W. Bush was the first president to officially save a turkey bound for his Thanksgiving table, and subsequent presidents have leaned into the gag.

Now it’s essentially a celebrity turn for two turkeys — the star turkey and the backup turkey, just in case something unfortunate occurs on the trip to Washington. Unlike 46 million turkeys destined for America’s Thanksgiving tables, Peanut Butter and Jelly were chosen from a flock of about 50 Broad Breasted Whites in Jasper, Ind. — born and raised specially for a White House appearance, or what Biden called the “turkey presidential primary.”

Under the supervision of National Turkey Federation chairman Phil Seger, the candidate turkeys were trained to tolerate loud noise and big crowds, and even stand on tables. Only the two deemed most beautiful and best behaved (and vaccinated, joked Biden) got the coveted nod for the White House ceremony, which includes a social media account, a stay at the Willard Hotel, and a news conference during which they parade their striking white plumage for the media.

Peanut Butter and Jelly, 17 weeks old, were the lucky birds this year. Like their less fortunate coopmates back in Indiana, they weigh about 40 pounds each. (The equivalent of 5 hours roasting time, if you want to be morbid about it.)

The fate of the pardoned birds — beyond not being dinner — has itself become a source of much debate. Domestic turkeys, sadly, are not destined for a long life regardless where they end up. Many birds have previously left the White House to live briefly at local farms and petting zoos. A few in the 2000s were flown to Disneyland, where the “happiest turkeys on earth” rode in the theme park’s Thanksgiving parade.

In the past few years, the birds have retired to universities where they serve as ambassadors for the poultry industry. Peanut Butter and Jelly will return to Indiana where they will live out their lives at Purdue University’s College of Agriculture — schoolchildren will meet and greet the presidential survivors who make history.

“The entire poultry industry is misunderstood,” said Greg Fraley, the Terry and Sandra Tucker Endowed Chair of Poultry Science at the university. “Lots of people have strong opinions but have never been around poultry.” Fraley said the two celebrity birds will have “the happiest and healthiest lives here at Purdue.”

That’s not good enough for Joaquin Phoenix, Billie Eilish, and other celebrities who signed a petition asking Biden to send the birds go to the Farm Sanctuary in New York state, an animal protection organization. The turkeys would enjoy dust baths and a happier social life, according to the petition, unlike turkeys at petting zoos and universities “where they are likely not cared for as individuals with unique personalities, emotions, needs, and preferences.”

In an act of presidential magnanimity, Biden officially pardoned both turkeys, who accepted the honor with what appeared to be calm indifference. He made a point of reminding the small audience that these traditions are important, and that everyone should feel lucky to celebrate Thanksgiving with loved ones.

“It reminds us to have fun and always be grateful,” he said.

Safe to say, the turkey pardon will be alive and well for the next three years. Which is more than we can say about Peanut Butter and Jelly, whose 15 minutes of fame is — dare we say — short lived. Have a good Hoosier life, little buddies.

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