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Biden is spending his 81st birthday honoring White House tradition of pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys

by DARLENE SUPERVILLE Associated Press
| November 20, 2023 8:40 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Liberty and Bell are ready for their presidential pardons.

The two Thanksgiving turkeys were due at the White House on Monday to play their part in what has become an annual holiday tradition: a president sparing them from becoming someone's dinner.

"We think that's a great way to kick off the holiday season and really, really a fun honor," Steve Lykken, chairman of the National Turkey Federation and president of the Jennie-O Turkey Store, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The event, set for the South Lawn this year instead of the Rose Garden, marks the unofficial start of the holiday season in Washington, and Monday was shaping up to be an especially busy opening day.

President Joe Biden, the oldest president in U.S. history, also was celebrating his 81st birthday on Monday. In the afternoon, his wife, first lady Jill Biden, was accepting the delivery of an 18.5-foot (5.6-meter) Fraser fir from Fleetwood, North Carolina, as the official White House Christmas tree.

Lykken introduced Liberty and Bell on Sunday at the Willard Intercontinental, a luxury hotel close to the White House. The gobblers checked into a suite there on Saturday following their red-carpet arrival in the U.S. capital after a dayslong road trip from Minnesota in a black Cadillac Escalade.

"They were raised like all of our turkeys, protected, of course, from weather extremes and predators, free to walk about with constant access to water and feed," Lykken said Sunday, as Liberty and Bell strutted around the Willard's newly renovated Crystal Room on plastic sheeting laid over the carpet. Young children in the crowd of onlookers — many of them employees and guests of the Jennie-O company — yelled "gobble, gobble" at them.

The male turkeys, both about 20 weeks old and about 42 pounds (19 kilograms), were hatched in July in Willmar, Minnesota — Jennie-O is headquartered there — as part of the "presidential flock," Lykken said. They listened to music and other sounds to prepare them for Monday's hoopla at the White House.

"They listened to all kinds of music to get ready for the crowds and people along the way. I can confirm they are, in fact, Swifties, and they do enjoy some Prince," Lykken said, meaning that Liberty and Bell are fans of Taylor Swift. "I think they're absolutely ready for prime time."

The tradition dates to 1947 when the National Turkey Federation, which represents turkey farmers and producers, first presented a National Thanksgiving Turkey to President Harry Truman.

Back then, and even earlier, the gobbler was given for the first family's holiday consumption. But by the late 1980s, the tradition had evolved into an often humorous ceremony in which the birds are pardoned, given a second chance at life after they are spared from ending up on a family's Thanksgiving table.

In 1989, as animal rights activists picketed nearby, President George H.W. Bush said, "But 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 -- and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here."

After Biden pardons his third pair of turkeys on Monday, Liberty and Bell will be returned to their home state to be cared for by the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences.

"You can imagine the wonderful care they're going to get from students and veterinarians and professors, etc., and so they will hopefully have a chance, maybe, to go see a hockey game or spend time with Goldy the gopher," Lykken said, referring to the university's mascot.

A little over 200 million turkeys will be eaten on Thanksgiving, Lykken said.

Biden will eat his Thanksgiving turkey with family on Nantucket, a Massachusetts island, continuing a long family tradition. On Sunday, he and the first lady served an early Thanksgiving meal to hundreds of service members from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS Gerald R. Ford at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, the largest installation of its kind in the world, along with their families.

Markus Platzer, the Willard's general manager, said the hotel's role in introducing the turkeys is the "highlight of the year." The Willard has been involved for more than 15 years, he said, calling the turkeys "very special guests of ours."

"There are so many bad things going on globally that this is something where everybody, you know, brings a smile into the face of the people, at least for a few minutes," Platzer said Sunday.