WASHINGTON — Barack Obama performed an annual rite of presidents on Wednesday, pardoning a pair of turkeys on Thanksgiving Eve and cracking jokes about the competition that brought them to his famous doorstep.
"For the record, let me say that it feels pretty good to stop at least one shellacking this November," Obama said in the White House Rose Garden, where he was flanked by daughters Malia and Sasha. A "shellacking" is how Obama described the beating Democrats suffered in elections earlier this month; the party lost control of the House and saw its Senate majority trimmed by six seats.
Apple and Cider, two 21-week-old, 45-pound turkeys raised on a farm outside Modesto, Calif., were plucked from a group of 25 birds during a competition "that involved strutting their stuff before a panel of judges, with an eclectic mix of music playing in the background," Obama said.
He called it a "turkey version" of "Dancing With the Stars," the program that crowned its newest winner Tuesday night.
"Except the stakes for the contestants was much higher," Obama said, laughing. "Only one pair would survive and win the big prize. Life."
Apple and Cider bring Obama's pardon total to four – four turkeys, that is. Last year, he pardoned a pair of turkeys named Courage and Carolina. He has not yet issued any pardons for humans.
The president wished America's families, including many buffeted by the economic slump, a safe and happy holiday. He also thanked the men and women of the U.S. military for serving "bravely and selflessly" in places far away from home.
Afterward, Obama approached the table where Apple was positioned and stroked the bird's head. When finished, he said: "All right, have a good life," then he and his daughters walked up the steps and into the Oval Office.
Apple and Cider were then driven to the home of George Washington, the nation's first president, in nearby Mount Vernon, Va. For the past five years, the presidentially pardoned turkeys had been sent to Disneyland in California, upsetting animal rights activists who preferred to see the birds slip quietly into retirement instead of becoming tourist attractions.
In the afternoon, Obama and his family delivered two turkeys that did not receive pardons to Martha's Table, a local charity offers meals and other community services. A Pennsylvania turkey farm donated the birds.
The president, his daughters, wife Michelle and her mother, Marian Robinson, and other family and friends passed out turkeys, stuffing and other Thanksgiving staples. It was a return visit for the first family; they worked at the pantry during last year's holiday.
Obama, in shirt sleeves, greeted patrons and their children with holiday wishes and high-fives, winking at toddlers as he packed bags with supplies. He handed a woman an overflowing bag and cautioned her, "It's heavy." Obama brightened at the sight of a toddler. "Hey, cutie pie!" he said, waving at the child.
The Obamas were spending Thanksgiving at the White House.
The White House tradition of turkey pardons, meanwhile, is more than six decades old.
The National Turkey Federation says occasional pardons date to the time of President Abraham Lincoln. The modern tradition began in 1947, when President Harry S. Truman accepted a Thanksgiving bird from the organization.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.