Of Presidents and Turkeys

Later today, I’m going to eat lots of turkey. So will millions of Americans celebrating Thanksgiving (and steeling themselves for the ravages of Black Friday, which this year is blasphemously beginning on Thursday). But of the 46 million turkeys that will be gobbled down today (that works out to 3 pounds of bird per person — really???), at least two will be spared. Liberty, and his understudy Peace, were officially pardoned by President Barack Obama yesterday at a White House ceremony.

At a time of overseas war, national and global economic distress and virulent partisan political bickering, is it a worthy use of the President’s time to pardon a turkey? Actually, yeah, it is.

Patterned after the legendary tale in which, at the behest of his son Tad, Abraham Lincoln pardoned the family’s Christmas turkey, President George H.W. Bush began an tradition of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey as an official recognition of the holiday (and an annual shout-out to the National Turkey Federation). An unofficial tradition began with President John F. Kennedy; I’m unclear as to why previous presidents were so wantonly indifferent to fowl welfare. President Obama pardoned his first turkey in 2009. His remarks then were a bit more extensive; yesterday his pardoning remarks were more concise. But in both cases this seemingly innocuous rhetorical act actually serves a useful purpose for our political culture.

In these brief rhetorical moments Obama displays a sense of humor, a recognition of the seemingly frivolous occasion, and a “good sport” character as he performs the ritual. He does this without diminishing the significance of the ritual; he humanizes it, and himself. He does this as well by performing it with his daughters Sasha and Malia, reinforcing his primary identity as a father and husband, as well as the larger importance of family as a central social and cultural foundation.

Aristotle held that one primary genre of rhetoric took place especially at moments of ceremonial or ritual importance. Epideictic rhetoric, or rhetoric of praise and blame, isn’t intended to engage in detailed policy deliberation or factual argument. Its primary purpose is to rehearse communal values for the community, (re-)constituting the audience as a unified moral identity. In government, one of the ways this kind of rhetoric is done is through the proclamation, an official public announcement that often commemorates a person, group, event or concept. Through the proclamation, the government symbolically communicates the value and worth of that which it commemorates.

Obama’s first poultry pardon took place during two wars, the aftermath of what would be the first part of a double-dip economic recession, and vicious political sparring over health care reform. In that brief address, he emphasized the importance of Thanksgiving for the present moment:

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.  Welcome to the White House.  On behalf of Sasha and Malia and myself, we’re thrilled to see you.  I want to thank Walter Pelletier, chairman of the National Turkey Federation, and Joel Brandenberger, its president, for donating this year’s turkey.  His name is “Courage,” and he traveled here from Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he was raised under Walter’s own precious care.

(Turkey gobbles.)

There you go.  (Laughter.)

Now, the National Turkey Federation has been bringing its finest turkeys to the White House for more than 50 years.  I’m told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their turkeys.  You can’t fault them for that; that’s a good-looking bird.  (Laughter.)  President Kennedy was even given a turkey with a sign around its neck that said, “Good Eatin’, Mr. President.”  But he showed mercy and he said, “Let’s keep him going.”  And 20 years ago this Thanksgiving, the first President Bush issued the first official presidential pardon for a turkey.

Today, I am pleased to announce that thanks to the interventions of Malia and Sasha — because I was planning to eat this sucker — (laughter) — “Courage” will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate.  Later today, he’ll head to Disneyland, where he’ll be grand marshal of tomorrow’s parade.  And just in case “Courage” can’t fulfill his responsibilities, Walter brought along another turkey, “Carolina,” as an alternate, the stand-in.

Now, later this afternoon, Michelle, Malia, Sasha and I will take two of their less fortunate brethren to Martha’s Table, an organization that does extraordinary work to help folks here in D.C. who need it the most.  And I want to thank Jaindl’s Turkey Farm in Orefield, Pennsylvania, for donating those dressed birds for dinner.  So today, all told, I believe it’s fair to say that we have saved or created four turkeys.  (Laughter.)

You know, there are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office.  And then there are moments like this — (laughter) — where I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland.  (Laughter.)  But every single day, I am thankful for the extraordinary responsibility that the American people have placed in me.  I am humbled by the privilege that it is to serve them, and the tremendous honor it is to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the finest military in the world — and I want to wish a Happy Thanksgiving to every service member at home or in harm’s way.  We’re proud of you and we are thinking of you and we’re praying for you.

When my family and I sit around the table tomorrow, just like millions of other families across America, we’ll take time to give our thanks for many blessings.  But we’ll also remember this is a time when so many members of our American family are hurting.  There’s no question this has been a tough year for America.  We’re at war.  Our economy is emerging from an extraordinary recession into recovery.  But there’s a long way to go and a lot of work to do.

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.  When President Lincoln set aside the National Day of Thanksgiving for the first time — to celebrate America’s “fruitful fields,” “healthful skies,” and the “strength and vigor” of the American people — it was in the midst of the Civil War, just when the future of our very union was most in doubt.  So think about that.  When times were darkest, President Lincoln understood that our American blessings shined brighter than ever.

This is an era of new perils and new hardships.  But we are, as ever, a people of endless compassion, boundless ingenuity, limitless strength.  We’re the heirs to a hard-earned history and stewards of a land of God-given beauty.  We are Americans.  And for all this, we give our humble thanks — to our predecessors, to one another, and to God.

So on this quintessentially American holiday, as we give thanks for what we’ve got, let’s also give back to those who are less fortunate.  As we give thanks for our loved ones, let us remember those who can’t be with us.  And as we give thanks for our security, let’s in turn thank those who’ve sacrificed to make it possible, wherever they may be.

Now, before this turkey gets too nervous that Bo will escape and screw up this pardon — (laughter) — or before I change my mind, I hereby pardon “Courage” so that he can live out the rest of his days in peace and tranquility in Disneyland.

And to every American, I want to wish you, on behalf of myself, Malia, Sasha, and Michelle, the happiest of Thanksgivings.  Thank you very much, everybody.  (Applause.)

After establishing the foundation for his Thanksgiving commemoration two years ago, this year Obama’s address goes to the same place in more concise fashion. From the address:

A great writer once called Thanksgiving the “one day that is ours … the one day that is purely American.”

When we gather around our tables tomorrow to share the fruits of our blessings, let’s remember what that means.  Let’s be grateful for what we have.  Let’s be mindful of those who have less.  Let’s appreciate those who hold a special place in our lives, and make sure that they know it.  And let’s think about those who can’t spend the holiday with their loved ones –- especially the members of our military serving overseas.  I’d like to thank all our men and women in uniform and their families for their incredible service and devotion.

And that’s what being an American is all about.  Even when times are tough, we look out for each other.  We lift each other up.  And we remind ourselves just how lucky we are here, together, in the greatest country on Earth.

In this address, as in his first, Obama uses the imagery of family meals and evocative reminders of absent members from military families to move us to a broader consideration of how much we have to be thankful for, even in times of struggle.

This has been a performative tradition that has continued since Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation in 1864, as the ravages of the Civil War finally showed evidence of concluding, and he (and Seward, the actual author) undoubtedly considered the long road of reconstruction and reconciliation ahead. Here are those words, which provide (if I may borrow his words) a fitting and proper message for this Thanksgiving Day 2011.

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful years and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the field of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than theretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In testimony wherof I have herunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

[Signed]
A. Lincoln

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours from the Political Denizens.

 

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