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Executive privilege and turkey pardon

Death penalty. Those two words have an ominous sound. They convey a sense of finality, a lack of hope, an end with or without resolution. There will be no Annie singing “Tomorrow.” In fact, there will be no tomorrow. The sun will not come up. The adverb “when” will be obsolete.

“See ‘ya” will be totally inappropriate. “¡Hasta luego!” will disappear from the Spanish language. As will “a piú tardi!” from Italian, “Nächste Woche” from German, “à tout à l‘heure!” from French, and “motto osoi” from Japanese. The thing about “finality” is that is so… final. There is no later, no next, no until. Unless…

Clemency This week, millions of birds from Turkey, a valued Eurasian ally of the United States, will be subject to the death penalty. The only future facing these gobble-speaking fowl is the termination of their lives. With one (actually, two) exception(s). A turkey, seemingly chosen at random, will be submitted to the President of the United States for clemency. Only POTUS can commute its sentence.

This god-like power is included under the broad definition of “executive privilege.” The perquisite is not spelled out in our Constitution, rather it is considered to be an “implied power,” which the Supreme Court ruled to be an element of the separation of powers doctrine. Its legitimacy, however, was confirmed in United States v. Nixon. As stated in 418 U.S., 713-14, “…once invoked, a presumption of privilege is established, requiring the Prosecutor to make a ‘sufficient showing’ that the ‘Presidential material’ is ‘essential to the justice of the case.’” I’m not quite sure how this applies to condemned birds, but it sounds official.

In “A History of the Presidential Turkey Pardon,” Will Storey writes, “Like most American traditions, the presidential turkey pardon is wrought with intrigue and legend.” In 1863, the “Great Emancipator” exercised his executive privilege more than once. At the behest of his son Tad, President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentence of a turkey, named it Jack, and taught it to follow him around. This may not be the first historical incidence of presidential clemency for fowl, but it is a good starting point for the coming week’s activity at the White House.

Going forward Inspired by Lincoln’s act of mercy, Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose established a tradition of sending a Thanksgiving turkey to the nation’s chief executive each year. His first gift was bestowed on Ulysses S. Grant (in the 1870’s) and his final offering was to Woodrow Wilson (in 1913). But, it is not clear if all — or, indeed, any — of the presidents spared the lives of the fowl creatures.

According to Storey, Harry S. Truman is often credited with using his power, in 1947, to pardon a turkey that was presented to him by the National Turkey Federation. However, in 2003, the staff of the Truman Library indicated that there were “no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his presidency.”

This statement has great credibility because it was President Truman who authorized the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan in the 1940’s. What was he thinking? What shortsightedness! Where did the Commander-in-Chief think that future exploding airbags and iPhones would be manufactured? So, because he put such little value on life, it’s likely that HST was a turkey killer.

Truman’s successor, Dwight David Eisenhower, was usually busy on the golf course, hunting elusive birdies. It can be safely assumed that he desperately wanted an eagle. Perhaps even the mythical albatross (3 under par). Therefore, it is nearly impossible to imagine a turkey flapping its way out of Ike’s strangling grasp. But, JFK — who followed DDE — was quite a different bird.

Entering a new era

Modern American presidential turkey lore seems to begin with John F. Kennedy. It has been reported that JFK spared a turkey meant for his table on Nov. 19, 1963, just three days before he was assassinated. According to Storey, the president said, “We’ll just let this one grow,” before sending the bird back to its farm.

When Hollywood collided with Washington under the reign of Ronald Reagan, there were lots of photo ops featuring the president with pardoned turkeys. In 1987, Reagan used the Thanksgiving ceremony to make a joke about granting clemency to a turkey in the midst of the Iran-Contra hullabaloo.

It wasn’t until two years later that President George H.W. Bush (a.k.a., Bush 41) officially used the word “pardon” during the commutation ceremony in 1989. In “History in the Headlines,” a print media partner of the History Channel, Christopher Klein wrote, “The public presentation of a plump gobbler to the chief executive in the lead-up to Thanksgiving had been a time-honored photo op since the 1940s, but Bush would add a new presidential tradition of his own. After noting that the turkey appeared ‘understandably nervous,’ Bush added: ‘Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.’”

A short life Unfortunately, turkeys are not bred for longevity. Few of the turkeys that have been pardoned by President Obama have lived very long after they were pardoned. Each year two turkeys are presented, and both receive clemency. The 2010 turkeys, Apple and Cider, died of natural causes in 2011. Peace and Liberty (from 2011) died in 2012. The 2012 birds, Cobbler and Gobbler died in 2013. In 2013, both Caramel and Popcorn were pardoned, but Popcorn died of heatstroke in 2014; Caramel survived until October, 2015. Mac and Cheese were the 2014 clemency recipients. Mac kicked the bucket in 2015, but Cheese may still be alive, along with Honest and Abe from last year’s ceremony.

If they are still alive after January’s inauguration, Cheese, Honest, and Abe, along with this year’s nominees, may face deportation back to Turkey. But, who knows. The times they are a-changing, and there may be an early morning tweet from the White House allowing them to remain here, safe, behind a new, huge wall.


Jim Glynn is aware that turkeys are native to North America. Sometimes he stretches the use of “literary license.”


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