On Wednesday, President Barack Obama will take part in a hallowed Thanksgiving tradition: keeping one lucky gobbler out of the deep fryer by extending him a presidential pardon. But there’s much to this merciful ritual that the public never sees. Here are ten insider tidbits to share over your own Thanksgiving table:
George H.W. Bush started this tradition 24 years ago: Though both JFK and Abe Lincoln showed mercy to birds in their time, George H.W. Bush was the first to extend the annual Thanksgiving turkey a presidential pardon. The chairman of the National Turkey Federation has presented a bird to the Commander-in-Chief each year since 1947.
This year’s tom comes from a town where turkeys outnumber humans: The current chairman is John Burkel, a fourth-generation turkey farmer from Badger, Minn. (pop. 375). He raises about 70,000 turkeys each year just south of the Canadian border.
The birds could have been named “Drum” and “Stick”: Two turkeys actually make the trip to Washington, D.C.: a top pick and an alternate. The Minnesota Turkey Growers Association asked the public to submit names for the duo and vote on their favorites. “Viking & Gunnar” came in first place, while the rather morbid “Drum & Stick” did not make the cut. Ultimately, the naming choice is up to White House officials, who are expected to announce their decision Tuesday.
The final turkey had roughly a 1 in 8,000 chance of getting the pardon: Burkel made his pick from an initial pool of 8,000 newly hatched turkeys that arrived at his farm in July. (Granted, these odds don’t take into account all of the turkeys in the world.) He let his gut tell him who was destined for greatness, randomly choosing one box of 80 to be the “presidential flock” and immediately separating them from the non-presidential birds. In August, Burkel narrowed the candidates to 20 based on their size and how tame they were. In November, he whittled those 20 down to two.
The elite “Obama birds” lived in a little turkey dream house: Oh, how the other turkeys must have envied them. In his backyard, Burkel built a 16 ft. by 20 ft. heated cottage for the top twenty turkeys, complete with siding, shutters, bunting and festive garlands. “My wife wanted it cute,” Burkel says, and he did not deny her. In the photo below, local kindergarten students are racing to get a peek at the birds.
The finalists endured weeks of paparazzi training: To weed out the turkey wheat from the turkey chaff, Burkel drilled the birds for their mission on the big day: standing on a table in front of a lot of noisy people and not freaking out. The first test was whether he had to chase them around the turkey dream house like they were in a Benny Hill skit. Then he would place the birds on a old kitchen table, blind them with flash photography and invite local children to come visit. “It doesn’t take much to get a group of 20 elementary students to start screaming and yelling,” he says. “We’ve tried to have as many visitors as we can.”
The top turkeys spent a lot of time listening to John Mayer: When the birds weren’t being socialized by the screams of young Minnesotans, they listened to music. Burkel played them the same tunes he likes, which meant a lot of Vivaldi and John Mayer. On the trip to Washington, D.C., the turkey wranglers driving the birds turned it up a notch: hopefully the exposure to Lady Gaga won’t undo all of Burkel’s careful conditioning.
Some also-rans had their fate determined by the governor of Minnesota: By mid-November, Burkel had narrowed the running down to six birds, based on their temperament, size and coloring. The most unflappable of those six went to Washington, D.C., and two others were shipped down to St. Paul. On Monday, Gov. Mark Dayton petted one of the turkeys in a ceremony at his office—before sending him off to the Salvation Army kitchens. “It’s a brutal world in Minnesota,” Burkel says.
The top two birds will enjoy two nights in a luxurious hotel suite: When the turkeys arrived in the nation’s capital Monday evening, they took up residence in the historic Willard Hotel, where rooms go for $200 to $3,500 per night. Previously pardoned birds have stayed at the W Hotel before being shipped off to Mount Vernon after their pardon. Wranglers have been known to bring tarps and sawdust in order to make the rooms homier for the birds.
The turkeys will live out their days in Leesburg, Va., but there’s no telling how long that might be: The two birds will holiday at Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington, before heading to their final destination: Morven Park in Leesburg. Though the birds could live for years after their pardons, the toms that Obama has granted clemency haven’t fared well so far. All eight have met their maker, some falling ill soon after their big day. One can only hope that the this year’s turkeys will prove pluckier.