Washington, DC - With icy rain and frosty winds knifing across the North Portico of the White House on Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama granted clemency to Popcorn, the 2013 National Thanksgiving Turkey and Caramel, the alternate who remained backstage during the ceremony.
"With the power vested in me, I want to grant Popcorn a full reprieve," President Obama said, then made the sign of the cross over the impressive 38-pound, 20-week-old snowball of a bird standing on a green-draped table surrounded by autumn gourds.
"Popcorn, you have a full reprieve from cranberry sauce and stuffing," President Obama declared. "We wish you well, and we're going to give Caramel as break as well."
President Obama wore a long black overcoat as he zipped through his quickest ceremony in the five years he's been offering holiday clemency to supersized poultry, flanked by First Daughters Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, for the 66th presentation ritual courtesy of the National Turkey Federation.
The President joked his way to the finish line in under five minutes, backdropped by the Nor'easter pummeling the nation's capital. A group of guests huddled at the base of the marble North Portico stairs, wrapped in winter gear as they watched.
|POTUS addresses the guests|
The population in the tiny northern town located not far from the Canadian border is just 375, while Burkel this year produced about 70,000 turkey hens for Northern Pride, Inc, a growers' collective.
Born on July 8th, Popcorn and Caramel were part of Burkel's original 80-member Presidential Flock, President Obama explained, honed down to just eight contenders during a months-long battle to get to the White House.
"Generally speaking, Thanksgiving is a bad day to be a turkey. Especially at a house with two dogs. So I salute our two guests of honor--Caramel and Popcorn--for their bravery," President Obama said.
"It was, quite literally, The Hunger Games," President Obama said.
"The two tributes, Caramel and Popcorn went head-to-head together for America’s vote as top gobbler."
In a move that shows that the government can actually make a website work, the White House dedicated a contest webpage to the toms, asking voters to base their selection on Soundcloud recordings of the birds' vocalizations, and baseball card-style graphics with their "stats."
Popcorn prefers corn feed and his favorite song is Beyoncé's Halo, his card noted, while Caramel prefers soy feed and is a fan of Lady Gaga's song Bad Romance.
"The competition was stiff, but we can officially declare that Popcorn is the winner," President Obama said, "proving that even a turkey with a funny name can find a place in politics."
"As for Caramel, he’s sticking around, and he’s already busy raising money for his next campaign," President Obama continued to laughter from the shivering guests.
Only the White House counted the contest votes.
But on Tuesday morning, Burkel himself dubbed Popcorn the frontrunner as he introduced the birds to the media during a press conference where the toms literally strutted their stuff in the ballroom of the Willard InterContinental hotel, located a block from the White House.
When asked which turkey he thought should be presented to the President, Burkel said that Popcorn was the bird for the job.
"He's my favorite," Burkel said, and added that after months of training, Popcorn was unflappable, able to stand on a table more calmly than Caramel, a major requirement for the ceremony.
Burkel also exposed the birds to loud music and flashing lights to replicate the scrum of reporters and photographers with bright lights who would record the pardoned turkey's 15 minutes of fame. Or 4:41 minutes, as it turned out.
Popcorn and Caramel are the second Minnesoto duo that President Obama has pardoned; 2011's Liberty and alternate Peace were raised in Wilmar, Minn. The North Star State is the nation's top turkey producer.
Popcorn gave an admirable performance as he met President Obama--even inserting a couple of well-timed gobbles as the President spoke.
|Sasha, L, reacts to her father's jokes as Malia looks on|
Rigorously kept out of the public spotlight except for holiday appearances with their parents, the girls seemed to be reluctant pardon witnesses. If their manners were any less impeccable, they would likely have engaged in a bit of eye rolling as their father cracked cute.
As it was, both girls offered protests.
"The office of the presidency--the most powerful position in the world--brings with it many awesome and solemn responsibilities. This is not one of them," President Obama quipped.
"But the White House turkey pardon is a great tradition. And I know Malia loves it--
"NO," Malia interjected pointedly, shaking her head.
"--as does Sasha," the President continued, ignoring his eldest's interjection.
The moment is captured on the White House video of the ritual, but Malia's comment is left off the official transcript of the President's remarks.
Sasha spent her minutes on the porch shifting her weight from foot to foot, her eyes downcast except for the moment she bridled and made her own interjected comment as her father spoke, causing him to speak over her. That's also on the video, and left off the transcript.
The girls have joined their father at previous pardons, when they have actually--somewhat tentatively, and encouraged by Dad--reached out to pet the turkeys. There was none of that this year.
President Obama closed on a serious note, noting that he and the First Family would be performing community service later in the afternoon at a food bank, a tradition started in 2009.
Two less fortunate turkeys would be a gift for the organization, the President said; the fully dressed birds were donated by Jaindl’s Turkey Farm in Orefield, Pennsylvania, "for the fifth year in a row."
"This is a reminder that this is a season to not only be thankful for the incredible blessings that we have, but also to remember the neediest and generously serve those who are not as fortunate," President Obama said.
After dubbing Thanksgiving a "quintessentially American" holiday, the President ended by extending a greeting on behalf of the First Family.
"Tomorrow, as we gather with our own friends and family, we’ll count ourselves lucky that there’s more to be thankful for than we can ever say, and more to be hopeful for than we can ever imagine," he said.
|The President shakes hands with John Burkel|
The President paused for one more look at Popcorn, still standing on the table.
"See ya, Popcorn," President Obama said.
He turned to the windblown gang of reporters and photographers,
standing on a soaked multi-tiered wooden scaffold placed beyond the roofline of the porch. They'd been drenched by a combination of rain and sleet.
"Get out of the rain," President Obama said with a wave, before striding into the White House.
The President got a laugh, but many members of the press did what the First Daughters had not, and rolled their eyes.
The powerful storm was predicted days in advance, and Wednesday was not the first time Presidential aides had left the press exposed to the elements during a White House event. The temperature was in the upper 30s with the wind gusting to 23 miles an hour during the ceremony.
A few hours later the President and First Family visited the Capital Area Food Bank to help pack Thanksgiving meals for the needy, accompanied by fourteen members of The Mission Continues, an organization composed of post-9/11 veterans who are awarded community service fellowships. It was the First Family's third Thanksgiving visit in a row.
The President has no public events scheduled on Thanksgiving Day, and no public events scheduled through Sunday. He will celebrate privately at the White House on Thursday.
|The Burkel family with Popcorn after the ceremony|
Popcorn and Caramel join a long line of Minnesota birds presented to Presidents: They are the twelfth set, with the first offered in 1949 to Harry S. Truman.
The turkeys' names this year were selected by the White House from a list from the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, which offered a Facebook contest to select the options. The top three vote getters were Viking & Gunnar, Gobblynob & Butterfluff, and Ole & Sven.
Burkel remained on the North Portico with Popcorn after the President departed. His entire family--wife Joni and their five children, ranging in age from kindergarten through college--were at the ceremony, as were in-laws, and they stood in the front row during the pardon, protected by the roof.
Daughter Andrea Burkel is a senior at Badger High School and the entire Class of 2014--all fifteen of them--were at the White House, too. They even got a shout out from the President.
After posing for a family photo with Popcorn, Burkel scooped the lucky tom up, and carried him to his transport cage--a large dog crate. Popcorn and Caramel will be on display to the public for the Christmas at Mount Vernon program at President George Washington's historically preserved estate in Alexandria, Virginia, from the day after Thanksgiving through Jan. 6, 2014.
President Obama's pardoned duos from 2010, '11, and '12 were all featured in the Christmas pageant, too, and continued to live at Mount Vernon afterwards. All but one died within months of arriving; though National Turkey Federation spokesman Keith Williams told Obama Foodorama that pardoned birds typically live "for around two years."
In a change for this year, Popcorn and Caramel will move to Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia after their holiday stint at Mount Vernon.
The former home of Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis, the 1,000-acre estate is a National Register Historic Property, has three museums, historic gardens, hiking trails, an equestrian facility, and sustainable agriculture programs.
Popcorn and Caramel will join Franklin, a bronze heritage turkey already in residence, in a two-acre demonstration garden site that has been dubbed 'Turkey Hill Farm.' They will be on display to the public beginning on February 1, 2014, said Teresa Davenport, Morven Park's Assistant Director of Development and Communications.
A special facility is being built to house the birds, she said. Gov. Davis, in office from 1918-1922, was a farmer, and at one point had close to 20,000 of the bronze heritage turkeys, which he raised to sell, Davenport said.
Mount Vernon officials told the Federation that they no longer wanted to "permanently" house President Obama's birds because they are not "historically accurate," due to their white feathers, Williams said. Washington would have shot wild turkeys with multi-colored feathers, or had them "brought in," Williams said he was told by Mount Vernon officials.
But Morven Park has no problem with that issue, said Davenport.
"We're really excited the turkeys are coming," Davenport said. "We've been looking for new ways to engage the public and we're very excited."
66 years of tradition...
President Obama's ten pardoned turkeys are part of a long White House tradition that is often the subject of debate, as the exact details get changed and retold. The President's other duos include the Virginia pair pardoned in 2012, Cobbler and alternate Gobbler, 2010's California pair Apple and alternate Cider, and 2009's North Carolina pair, Courage and Carolina, as well as Minnesota's Liberty and Peace (read more on the topic here).
Over the decades of the White House turkey presentation tradition, some Presidents have eaten their birds, or donated them to be eaten. In 1963, just four days before his assassination, on Nov. 18 President John F. Kennedy was famously given a bird that had a sign hung around its neck with a string. It read "Good eating, Mr. President!" Kennedy did not grant the bird an official pardon, but responded "Let's just keep him."
It wasn't until 1989 when President George H.W. Bush granted clemency to his presentation turkey that the tradition of the annual pardon formally began, the White House says. Every President since has offered the presentation turkeys a reprieve from the Thanksgiving table.
The National Turkey Federation estimates that more than 46 million turkeys will be eaten this Thanksgiving. In 2011, more than 248.5 million turkeys were raised in the US, with more than 219 million consumed, says the Federation.
*The transcript of the President's remarks.
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*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodoramal White House video