Look at that fetching bird! Do I want to harm a feather on its body? Of course not! Especially after what happened to my chicken Fred. But what’s with this tradition of presidents pardoning turkeys? To begin with, a pardon implies a crime. What did these turkeys ever do to deserve a death sentence? Perhaps it is a good metaphor for our society where punished crime is mostly something you are born into. Born poor and black? You may need a pardon before you are through. Born rich and white? Forget about it! You’re untouchable.
Yesterday, President Obama pardoned a turkey named Popcorn. I think we can all agree that no animal with a name should ever be killed and eaten. But Obama noted that the pardoning of Popcorn was not one of the important jobs of a president. I might take exception to that statement. After all, much of what a president does is provide photo opportunities for the press. We don’t have any royalty to do that job here, so he’s stuck with it. And he knows this. He even prepared a joke for the event.
But it bothers me. Obama seems to take his obligation to pardon turkeys a good deal more seriously than he takes his job to pardon human beings. As Think Progress notes, Obama has increased his pardons from zero last year to 17 this year. “But those few pardons did not change his record of the lowest clemency rate in modern history.” Obama is also the deportation king. He is also the drone civilian murder king. If I agreed with him about any of these policies, he’d be my hero. As it is, not so much.
Looking back on the history of turkey pardons, we naturally land on the conservative icon Ronald Reagan. He didn’t actually pardon any turkeys himself. But at the end of the Iran-Contra scandal, he was asked if he would pardon the criminal Oliver North. Reagan deflected the question by joking about pardoning some turkey named Charlie. Most likely as a result, George Bush Sr started the tradition the first year of his term.
So we can see the whole turkey pardoning business as an example of how the media get sidetracked from important business to trivial photo opportunities. The Iran-Contra Affair was a very big deal. I have absolutely not doubt that both Reagan and Bush were involved in it. And it represents a far worse crime than anything that Nixon ever did. Yet it came to nothing. And it made Oliver North, who absolutely should have been tried for treason, into a conservative hero. But then, being a conservative hero comes pretty cheap. All one have to do is publicly shit on everything that America is supposed to stand for.
I don’t mean to suggest that Obama has done anything so terrible—at least to Americans inside US borders. But his record is far from stellar. And I am really tired of hearing people apologize for him. Somehow he just can’t be liberal because he’s black or because he used drugs or because he’s a Democrat. (That’s a great irony in US politics: conservatives can’t be liberal because they’re conservative; but liberals can’t be liberal because then people might accuse them of being liberal. The horror!) Regardless, Obama is fooling himself if he thinks he will go down in history as a great president. People might point to Obamacare. But like with Johnson, they will be scared away from his conservative governance and the bad economy. And no one will care at all about the turkeys.