WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama got the holiday mood started at the White House on Wednesday with the traditional pardoning of the national Thanksgiving turkey, this time with his nephews standing in for daughters Malia and Sasha.
The light-hearted ceremony in the Rose Garden also featured Iowa-raised turkeys Tater and Tot, with the latter receiving the formal reprieve.
Obama said he has used the past seven pardoning ceremonies to embarrass his daughters with what he called a "corny-copia" of bad jokes about turkeys. "This year, they had a scheduling conflict. Actually, they just couldn't take my jokes anymore," the president said.
His nephews, Austin and Aaron Robinson, filled in admirably. Obama joked they had not yet been turned cynical by Washington. "They still believe in bad puns. They still believe in the grandeur of this occasion," Obama said. "They still have hope."
The White House asked people on Twitter to vote for which turkey will receive the pardon, though both will get a reprieve. The White House even provided a biography for each bird to help voters with their decision. For example, Tater's favorite snack is worms. Tot prefers tomato slices. Each 18-week-old bird weighed in at about 40 pounds.
While only one could be named the "National Thanksgiving Turkey," the White House said that both birds will be sent to their new home at Virginia Tech's "Gobblers Rest" where they will be cared for by veterinarians and students.
The ceremony also gave Obama a chance to reflect on the spirit of Thanksgiving. Obama said it's a time to remember that "we have a lot more in common than divides us." He also challenged Americans to show the world that the United States is a generous and giving country, and to make sure everyone has something to eat on Thanksgiving.
After the ceremony, the president and first family served Thanksgiving meals to residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington. The campus is home to 405 previously enlisted service members, who represent every campaign since World War I. Obama served the turkey and gravy and briefly chatted with veterans and workers as they went through the line.
First Lady Michelle Obama served beans and spinach, while Sasha provided the mashed potatoes, dressing and cranberry sauce.
The pardoning ceremony brings levity to the endless list of serious issues the president faces daily. It inevitably also leads to several bad jokes that will leave the audience responding with "oohs" instead of laughs. A baby began crying after one of the jokes, prompting the president to reply: "Oh, it's not that bad. Now, come on."
Obama was not deterred by the groans or the crying saying he hopes that when somebody at the Thanksgiving dinner table says you can't have any more food, you'll respond: "Yes, we cran."
"I know there's some bad ones in here, but this is the last time I'm doing this so we're not leaving any room for leftovers," he added.
The National Turkey Federation began bringing live turkeys to the White House when President Harry S. Truman was in office. The White House Historical Association said Truman remarked they would "come in handy" for Christmas dinner. President John Kennedy spared the turkey presented to him in 1963, saying "let's keep him going." And President George H.W. Bush is credited with beginning the formal pardon tradition back in 1989, saying that year's bird was "granted a presidential pardon as of right now."