Has the White House turkey pardon jumped the shark?

The annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon, dating back to JFK, is now a highly choreographed affair, involving two turkeys, their 'bios,' and a Facebook vote to decide who gets to be the official White House bird.

White House Facebook
Who will President Obama pardon: Cobbler or Gobbler"

Has the White House turkey pardon jumped the shark?

We ask this because this year’s traditional ceremony – in which President Obama will pardon a bird presumably otherwise bound for a Thanksgiving platter – is more, um, elaborate than ever. It involves two turkeys, and Facebook, and voting, and Carly Simon. This isn’t a lighter moment in a president’s otherwise heavy schedule, it’s an over-produced reality show. Call it “The Gravy Factor," or maybe “America’s Got Drumsticks."

OK, we’ll back up a moment and take this whole thing from the top. Since at least 1947, US presidents have participated in an annual event in which they receive a turkey from the National Turkey Federation in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving harvest feast.

At the beginning, these birds had a date with oyster stuffing. President Truman ate his, or at least said he was going to. President Eisenhower did the same thing.

But more recently, White Houses have decided it looks less carnivorous for them to grant the on-stage bird clemency. According to a White House history of the event, John F. Kennedy was the first to send his turkey back to the farm. “We’ll just let this one grow,” he said.

President George H. W. Bush was the first to use the actual word “pardon." He sent his turkey to live out its days at Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Va., thereby indicating he had a subtler sense of humor than historians give him credit for today.

Since then the ceremony has become more and more Hollywood. Two turkeys are involved – a primary turkey and a backup in case the first bird can’t carry out its duty of continuing to live.

Enter Gobbler and Cobbler. This year, some Obama aide had the bright idea of pitting these two birds against each other in a Facebook-based voting contest. The one with the most “likes” would be named the official White House bird.

Gobbler’s a four-month-old male from Rockingham County, Va., according to his Facebook description. His favorite food is corn, and his walk is “patient but proud," according to the White House.

Cobbler is a four-month-old, 40-pound male, also from Rockingham, who’s a “strutter” and likes the song “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon, according to his official bio.

(Sweet cornbread stuffing! Who’s the overachieving White House official who had to make that stuff up? They clawed their way to the top of Washington and thought they’d be running the world and instead they’re hawking poultry.)

At last look, Cobbler was the favorite – he had about 2,400 “likes” to Gobbler’s 2,100. Neither will be eaten, so the title is honorific. Maybe they get a sash, or a crown.

But here’s our point – it seems to us they’re being ironic about the whole ceremony instead of straightforward. “Cobbler”? Carly Simon? If it’s not worth doing it without a subtext, maybe it’s not worth doing at all.

It’s not like presidents enjoy it. Or at least, many don’t seem to. Ike and Jimmy Carter made their veeps shoulder most of the turkey-related duties. Ronald Reagan laughed when his turkey made a flyabout and bolted for freedom.

In 2009, Obama approached the bird to be pardoned, named “Courage," and asked his (the bird’s) handlers if there was an “official gesture." Come on – this whole thing has become too grandiose, like the “Happy Days” episode where Fonzie literally jumped a shark while water-skiing. At that point, the show’s creators were out of ideas, and it began to go downhill.

Perhaps the turkey pardon has reached that crucial turn in the narrative road. The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked Obama to end the practice, calling it “archaic."

“The White House turkey ‘pardon’ is a sorely outdated event,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk wrote in a letter to the White House.

We might agree with that, but then again, the scalloped oysters are our own favorite part of the turkey-day meal.

RECOMMENDED: Know your US presidents? See if D.C. Decoder can stump you.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.