WASHINGTON (AP) — Turkeys Liberty and Bell have new appreciation for the phrase, “Let freedom ring.”
The Thanksgiving birds played their part Monday in annual White House tradition that this year coincided with President Joe Biden ‘s 81st birthday: a president issuing a pardon and sparing them from becoming someone’s holiday dinner.
First, Biden — the oldest president in U.S. history — wanted to make light of his age.
“By the way, it’s my birthday today,” the president said, adding that guests in the Oval Office sang “Happy Birthday” to him before the event. “I just want you to know, it’s difficult turning 60. Difficult.”
He also noted that the presentation of a National Thanksgiving Turkey to the White House has been a tradition for more than seven decades.
“This is the 76th anniversary of this event, and I want you to know I wasn’t there at the first one,” Biden said. The Democrat’s age has become an issue as he seeks reelection next year.
Before issuing the pardons, Biden said that although Liberty and Bell are Minnesota natives, they were named for the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
“These birds have a new appreciation for the word, ‘let freedom ring,’” he said, adding that they love Honeycrisp apples, ice hockey, a thousand lakes and the Mall of America — all things the Midwest state is famous for. Minnesota is known as the “land of 10,000 lakes.”
They overcame “some tough odds” to get to the White House, Biden continued, saying “they had to work hard, show patience and be willing to travel over a thousand miles.” He suggested their feat probably was harder than getting a ticket to Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour or “Britney’s tour, she’s down in, it’s kind of warm in Brazil right now.” He apparently mixed up his female pop stars; Taylor Swift was in Brazil over the weekend for her Eras Tour; Britney Spears currently is not on tour.
“Look folks, based on their commitment to being productive members of society as they head to their new home at the University of Minnesota … I hereby pardon Liberty and Bell. Congratulations, birds!” Biden declared.
Hundreds of guests, including Cabinet secretaries and White House staff who brought children, watched from the South Lawn as Biden kicked off the unofficial start of Washington’s holiday season. His grandchildren Maisy Biden and Beau Biden watched from the sidelines, and Beau was led over to pet one of the turkeys after the ceremony.
Later Monday, military families joined Biden’s wife, first lady Jill Biden, as she accepted delivery of an 18.5-foot (5.6-meter) Fraser fir from the Cline Church Nursery in Fleetwood, North Carolina. It will go on display in the Blue Room as the official White House Christmas tree.
Steve Lykken, chairman of the National Turkey Federation and president of the Jennie-O Turkey Store, told The Associated Press in an interview last week that the pardons are a “great way to kick off the holiday season and really, really a fun honor.”
Lykken introduced Liberty and Bell on Sunday at the Willard Intercontinental, a luxury hotel near 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.
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 Liberty and Bell are fans of 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 given a second chance at life.
In 1989, as animal rights activists picketed nearby, President George H.W. Bush offered a public assurance, saying, “this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table.”
Now spared from Thanksgiving dinner, Liberty and Bell will be cared for by the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.