Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Trump Pardons Corn The Turkey, Trying To Show Normalcy Amid The Abnormal

First lady Melania Trump watches as President Trump gives the turkey Corn a presidential pardon outside the White House on Tuesday.
First lady Melania Trump watches as President Trump gives the turkey Corn a presidential pardon outside the White House on Tuesday.

Updated at 2:40 p.m. ET

A U.S. president again took part in the very strange and myth-filled tradition of pardoning a turkey at the White House on Tuesday.

This year's bird, Corn, was chosen over compatriot Cob after the White House ran a poll on Twitter asking which one should be spared between the two.

It all seemed normal. That's one effect presidents hope for out of this tradition — to show a sense of normalcy. Trump, as presidents usually do, made a few fowl puns. He briefly acknowledged the coronavirus pandemic, thanking medical workers and scientists, and praising the progress of fast-tracked vaccines.

Still, this year, it all seemed wildly off and out of place.

The sitting president has refused to concede, though he lost the election. On Monday night, there was a sign of acceptance as he said he directed his administration to begin President-elect Joe Biden's transition. But he vowed to keep fighting to overturn the election, though he has mostly exhausted his legal options.

He also continues to level baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud, which his team has barely even attempted to prove in court.

Trump has held few events since Election Day, while the country continues to reel from the coronavirus pandemic. And yet he held a soft-spotlight event Tuesday pardoning turkeys with the White House in the background and Americana all around him, as if to say, everything is fine.

But it's not fine. Trump is undermining the very thing that has distinguished America for more than two centuries from corrupt countries — free, fair and transparent elections and the peaceful transfer of power.

Always an odd event with an odd history

So, this usually light event felt otherworldly this year. It's one that always is something of the bizarre anyway. The whole spectacle — including the turkeys coming to Washington, D.C., staying in hotels (yes, they get posh hotel rooms) — is a production of the National Turkey Federation, the turkey lobby.

The federation has spent more than $1.5 million in the past decade on lobbying. In 2008 and 2009, it doubled its spending, presumably to keep the industry from being left behind during the financial crisis, to keep this event at the White House and keep turkey on people's plates on Thanksgiving.

How this even became an annual tradition is an odd piece of White House history. The turkey federation has been giving turkeys to presidents since 1947. (Various other groups did so in a less-organized way dating back to the 19th century.)

But those turkeys were always meant to be carved at the Thanksgiving dinner table. The goofy tradition of pardoning a turkey wasn't made official until 1989 when George H.W. Bush formalized the event.

That followed the first use of the word pardon related to a turkey by a president, used as a deflection technique by Ronald Reagan. Reagan in 1987 was embroiled in controversy because of the Iran-Contra weapons-sale scandal.

Asked at that year's turkey presentation if he'd pardon two of the key players in the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan joked about the bird in front of him: "If they'd given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him," he said.

And so a tradition was born.

President John F. Kennedy reaches out to touch a turkey presented to him at the White House from the turkey industry in 1963.
Harvey Georges / AP
President John F. Kennedy reaches out to touch a turkey presented to him at the White House from the turkey industry in 1963.

Presidents had started informally and sporadically sending Thanksgiving turkeys to petting zoos or farms dating back to John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The turkey federation gave Kennedy a big bird with a sign hanging around its neck that read, "Good eating, Mr. President."

With cameras trained on him, Kennedy got cold feet and said, "We'll just let this one grow."

The turkeys have not always lived very long after their pardoning, because they're farm-raised and bred to be eaten. These aren't wild turkeys.

They used to be sent to Disneyland, then to the aptly named Frying Pan Farm Park (seriously, that's real) in Virginia, and for the last several years to Gobblers Rest at Virginia Tech's Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

This was not the first time presidents have held the turkey pardon in the midst of a crisis. George W. Bush held the event just two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; Barack Obama did so in the midst of the Great Recession. Both presidents struck a somber tone and reflected on what the country was dealing with.

"We've been through some tough times, some testing moments during the last months, yet we've never lost sight of the blessings around us," Bush said. "The freedoms we enjoy, the people we love, and the many gifts of our prosperous land. On this holiday, we give thanks for our many blessings and for life itself."

In 2009, Obama, with his daughters at his side, said, "In more tranquil times, it's easy to notice our many blessings. It's even easier to take them for granted. But in times like these they resonate a bit more powerfully."

He noted that Abraham Lincoln created the Thanksgiving holiday during the Civil War as a way to try and bring the country together.

"When times were darkest," Obama said, "President Lincoln understood that our American blessings shined brighter than ever."

Trump has struggled to console during tough times, and the trappings of the event seem even more inconsequential than it does in normal years. Key states where Biden won are certifying the presidential election results this week and next, and it became harder for Trump to deny reality.

Trump should perhaps look to his own words from 2018, urging another candidate to accept the results of a "fair and open election" for him to be able to quit his legal challenges ... cold turkey.

"This was a fair election. Unfortunately, Carrots refused to concede and demanded a recount, and we're still fighting with Carrots," Trump said, jokingly chiding Carrots, the turkey, for not accepting the outcome of a White House poll that voted for Peas to be pardoned.

"And I will tell you we've come to a conclusion, Carrots, I'm sorry to tell you the result did not change. It's too bad for Carrots."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.