Politics

Boosted, Not Basted: Biden Pardons 2 Turkeys in Thanksgiving Tradition

WASHINGTON — There are few rituals in President Biden’s Washington that the coronavirus has not touched, that partisan contagion has not warped and that a collective sense of American exhaustion has not endangered.

But the cheesy, just-because tradition of the presidential turkey pardon? It is alive and well.

“Peanut Butter and Jelly were selected based on their temperament, appearance, and, I suspect, vaccination status,” Mr. Biden said on Friday in a Rose Garden ceremony, calling the chosen bird (Peanut Butter) and its alternate (Jelly) by name. “Yes, instead of getting basted, these two turkeys are getting boosted.”

The half-hour turkey ceremony, complete with its bad puns and dozens of White House officials and their families looking on, seemed like a throwback to another time, or at least an unmasked one. The nature of Mr. Biden’s presidency, with its promise to pull together a fractured nation, means that serious times have called for a serious White House.

During his first year in office, there was no Easter egg roll. There were no trick-or-treaters roaming the White House driveway. There was a Fourth of July picnic hailing a “summer of freedom” from the coronavirus, but, given the rise of the Delta variant, the mission-accomplished tone turned out to be ill-timed. The turkey ceremony gave Mr. Biden a few minutes to bask in what is the most frivolous and least controversial perk of the office, one that, he said, “reminds us to have a little bit of fun, and always be grateful.”

Mr. Biden began an eight-minute speech by saying that the tradition of the presentation of the turkey dated back to President Truman, but was soon interrupted by a heckler: one of the gobbling birds.

“Yes,” a delighted-looking Mr. Biden said to the bird, apparently pleased with its limited protest vocabulary. “Yes.”

There was no talk of Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda, or a vote taken earlier in the day by the House to advance a $2 trillion social spending package. There was no mention of a not-guilty verdict in Wisconsin for a man who fatally shot two other men and wounded another amid protests and rioting over police conduct last year. There was no mention of the cost of Thanksgiving, which this year will be more expensive for families because of the rising cost of goods. (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week that a turkey would cost about $1 more this year.)

There are enough large and looming problems facing this White House to power a Billy Joel song, but on Friday afternoon, the president did not answer questions shouted at him about any of that, and did not drift toward a Fox News reporter who called his name several times.

Instead, Mr. Biden, who is not always the most disciplined communicator, focused on what he was there to do: offer freedom to a pair of 40-pound birds.

“Turkey is infrastructure,” Mr. Biden said. “Peanut Butter and Jelly are going to help build back the Butterball.”

On Thursday, Peanut Butter and Jelly were unveiled in a ceremony at the Willard InterContinental hotel. The birds pranced about the ritzy hotel as Phil Seger, the chairman of the National Turkey Federation, and Andrea Welp, a turkey grower based near Jasper, Ind., introduced them to the public.

The pair’s training to become the turkeys pardoned by the president included a regimen of listening to loud music in order to master the stress that comes with visiting Washington in 2021, which, for anyone who has been here lately, feels relatable.

Their visit concluded on a happier note than that of some of their predecessors: Earlier presidents, including Truman, tended to eat the birds that were presented to them. The practice of granting freedom to turkeys dates back to the Kennedy era, though President George H.W. Bush was the first to formalize the process and recognize it as an official pardoning. Mr. Biden said that, once pardoned, Peanut Butter and Jelly would convalesce at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

In recent years, the turkey pardoning tradition, which has been hailed as America’s dumbest, has provided a dissonant backdrop to presidents dealing with political division and an impeachment or two. Indeed, it was only one short year ago that the cornball proceedings suddenly had news value when an open question swirled: Would President Donald J. Trump pardon himself, along with turkeys Corn and Cob? (He didn’t.)

In the year since Corn, Cob and Mr. Trump went free, Mr. Biden has established himself as a different kind of president, running a very different White House, one that tries to be more attuned to the human toll of the coronavirus, and the hole it has ripped in American life.

But for about a half-hour, Mr. Biden, who has allowed himself few ceremonial indulgences as president outside of gunning a Jeep down the White House driveway, basked in the bad puns and dad jokes. And he appeared at ease in a setting where his only concern was speaking over the gobbling heckles of a turkey.

“Folks, as I’ve said before, every American wants the same thing: You want to be able to look the turkey in the eye and tell them that everything is gonna be OK,” Mr. Biden said. “Folks, it’s gonna be OK.”

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