There is an alternate reality in which Donald J. Trump is merely a mercurial old man. That version of Trump meanders the world in his big suit and rambles about things he likes or does not, uncouth but, stripped of a lifetime of wealth and power, basically harmless. That Trump, too, would probably make some jokes about Barack Obama on Thanksgiving. He might even say, as Trump did in the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday afternoon, that he hoped to undo Obama’s ceremonial pardon of the 2016 National Thanksgiving Turkeys, Tater and Tot. And he might, in that universe, not pet but cook—or have cooked, anyway—the 36-pound bird that was presented to him courtesy of the National Turkey Federation. He would have it well done.
We do not, needless to say, live in that world. We live instead in one where discussion of the annual presidential turkey pardon also includes utterances about LaVar Ball and the 2017 turkeys’ potential for expressions of post-pardon gratitude. It was Harry Truman who informally began the tradition of White House turkey displays, though he preferred to eat his. “Today,” Trump declared, “I’m going to be a much nicer president.”
He was, and so Drumstick and his flockmate Wishbone—out of sight but on hand in case Drumstick committed one of the two cardinal Thanksgiving turkey sins: becoming unruly or ugly—will be spared the fate of nearly every other turkey they’ve ever encountered. In lieu of the slaughterhouse, they will now be transported to a paddock at Virginia Tech christened Gobbler’s Rest, where they will be met by the still safe Tater and Tot. “I have been informed by the White House Counsel’s Office that Tater and Tot's pardons cannot under any circumstances be revoked, so I’m not going to revoke them,” Trump said. “So, Tater and Tot, you can rest easy.”
If you take away only one thing from the annual presidential turkey pardon, let it be this: A presidential pardon doesn’t make much of a difference to the birds, who have been biologically doomed to a miserable life and swift death whether or not they make it to December. The broad-breasted white turkey, the version of the bird that may be sitting even now in your freezer or else thawing placidly in your sink, is simply not destined for good things. Bred to be morbidly obese and top-heavy, the turkeys are an annual subject of PETA protests; the presidentially pardoned ones have sometimes been placed on diets or exercise regimes in mostly failed attempts to save them from their DNA. Misery, after all, is certain even if the turkey, through the machinations of Big Turkey and wholesome American tradition, never has its head slotted vertically into what is actually, truly, and sincerely referred to in slaughterhouses as the “killing cone.” The bird is likewise not particularly good at making more life: The greater turkey industry, which furnishes American homes with somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 million birds each Thanksgiving principally of the broad-breasted white variety, might be the world’s largest artificial insemination operation. As you raise your baster this week, consider that it is in all likelihood not the first one that has played a role in the turkey’s being.
Popcorn, pardoned by Obama in 2013, succumbed to heatstroke the following summer. Mac, pardoned by Obama one year later, also fell to heatstroke during his first summer of liberty. Caramel and Cheese, their respective partners in pardon, were done in not long after by “natural causes.” Their 2012 predecessors, Gobbler and Cobbler, also expired within a year. “It was very quick,” one of Gobbler’s minders said later. “We don’t know what the illness was.” On Thanksgiving Eve in 2013, U.S. News and World Report ran the headline, “All Of President Obama’s Pardoned Turkeys Are Dead.”
Tater and Tot, meanwhile, are not exactly thriving: Now a ripe 17 months old, they are swiftly aging out of this world. “Tater and Tot are showing their age but are still curious and friendly,” the Gobbler’s Rest turkey minder told the New York Daily News earlier this month. “They gobble at people who visit them and at music.” A year ago, I met the birds while they were stashed in their suite at the ritzy Willard Hotel, where reporters were urged to whistle at them to elicit gobbles.
In the lead-up to the event, much was made of Trump’s first time wrangling with the folksy Thanksgiving tradition, which, in Trumpian fashion, was in fact not his first pardon as president: That honor went to former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio in August. Would he say something offensive? Would he throw in a human pardonee? Would he besmirch, in some dark new way, one of the rosier, if perhaps most utterly silly, corners of the presidency?
In the end, he did nothing of the sort. He told some mild jokes and gave the bird a buoyant round of applause. His daughter Tiffany approached and patted its weird, nobbly head. And now Drumstick and Wishbone will go on to Gobbler’s Rest, where they will luxuriate in perpetuity. Or at least, you know, for another few months.