Biden pardons National Thanksgiving Turkeys from Minnesota while marking his 81st birthday

A turkey on top of a podium
President Joe Biden stands next to Liberty, one of the two national Thanksgiving turkeys, after pardoning them during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Monday.
Andrew Harnik | AP

Updated: 1:15 p.m.

Liberty and Bell can spread their wings without fear.

The two Thanksgiving turkeys from Minnesota played their part Monday in an annual holiday tradition at the White House: a president sparing them from becoming someone’s dinner.

“I hereby pardon Liberty and Bell. Congratulations, birds,” President Joe Biden said after one of the National Thanksgiving Turkeys was placed on a table near him.

The 20-week-old, 42-pound birds were hatched and bred in Willmar, Minn., by the Jennie-O turkey company for the occasion.

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After Monday’s ceremony, Liberty and Bell were set to return home to Minnesota where they’ll live on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’ St. Paul campus, cared for by students and faculty of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

They’ll serve as “educational ambassadors in Minnesota,” the U of M said.

Monday’s White House event, held on the South Lawn this year instead of the smaller Rose Garden, marks the unofficial start of the holiday season in Washington, and Monday was an especially busy opening day.

Biden, the oldest president in U.S. history, also celebrated turning 81 on Monday. In the afternoon, his wife, first lady Jill Biden, was accepting the delivery of an 18.5-foot Fraser fir from Fleetwood, N.C., as the official White House Christmas tree.

Biden joked about his age, saying, “this is the 76th anniversary of this event. I want you to know I wasn’t there for the first one.” The Democrat’s age has become an issue as he seeks reelection next year.

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.”

Biden Turkey Pardon
Two turkeys, named Liberty and Bell, attend a news conference Sunday at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin | AP

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 at Sunday’s event 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, were hatched in July in Willmar 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.”

When they return to Minnesota to live out their days at the U, “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 joked.

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.”

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 at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia.

MPR News contributed to this report.