Happy Thanksgiving Eve! We are getting ready to check out for a few days and spend time with my husband’s family. I love Thanksgiving. Some of my favorite memories from growing up involve Thanksgiving. And even recent years, too.
So many Thanksgiving memories and stories. One that usually gets brought up and is a friend and family favorite involves my time at the White House and this one particular time that I thought I was going to get fired. (Or at least demoted, but fired sounds so much more dramatic, right?) This story also involves a turkey – not just any turkey, but THE Official Thanksgiving Turkey. I’ve always been one to think on my feet and stay cool, calm, and collected and working at The White House was a heck of a training ground and place that sharpened those skills for me. This turkey story was definitely one of the more funnier-in-the-end character and skill building moments…
For two years, I had the cool opportunity to be on point for the official pardoning of the Thanksgiving Turkey. The tradition of the President receiving a live turkey for Thanksgiving began with Truman in 1947. The “presidential pardoning” of the turkey though began with President George H. W. Bush in 1989.
For this event, I worked closely with the National Turkey Federation (NTF) who has been a part of this tradition since it began. They bring in two live turkeys – one for the presentation to the President, one as a backup. Seriously, that’s what someone once told me. And it could have been totally relevant the day I thought I was going to get fired.
Let me set the scene. It was 2006. A chilly and overcast day, but we stuck with our original plan to hold the mid-morning event in the Rose Garden, just off the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House. Part of our prep included letting the turkey the NTF felt would be the best bird for the presentation stretch its legs in the garden. (For real. It had to stretch its legs.) Chairs were being setting up with WHCA (White House Communications Agency) setting up speakers, podium, mic, etc. Didn’t think it would be an issue to have the bird mill around the Rose Garden while finishing touches were taking place. So, to accommodate, we gained clearance for the truck with the two turkeys in it to pull up and park on the drive on the South Lawn until closer to event time. Chosen turkey is carried to the garden. Leg stretching commences.
All is good. Then is not.
The President was in the Oval Office, so we made sure we kept quiet and kept an eye on the turkey as it kind of walked around the garden. The President and First Lady had two dogs, Barney and Miss Beazley. (RIP to both.) I had asked – or thought I’d mentioned – in pre-event meetings that we probably should make sure the dogs were kept away from the turkeys. Next thing I know, I hear one of them bark out on the South Lawn. The turkey in the truck had made some gobble noises. The dogs reacted. I quickly asked someone to go check on where the dogs were and if we thought it’d be an issue.
Dogs move fast.
Before we could react, both dogs came running into the Rose Garden. Myself, the turkey farmer, and president of the NTF tried to circle the turkey and shield it from the dogs. But it was no use. The turkey broke our little circle of
trust protection. One of the dogs chased it. The turkey went over chairs, with the dog running after it, barking. Remember, we’re trying to keep quiet because the President is in his office in a meeting (A NATIONAL SECURITY BRIEFING. No big deal.), so we’re trying to keep our frantic calls to the animals to a quiet yell whisper. I don’t know what happened but just as the farmer was able to reach the turkey and pick it up, I heard a familiar voice over my right shoulder call for the dogs. All I could do was stand there. The leader of the free world picked up his dogs, then handed them to one of the good folks that took care of the grounds. I think all of us stood still. I froze. He picked up his papers or whatever documents he had walked out of the Oval with, gave a quick look at his frozen staff members, then walked back into his meeting.
Um, so this is where I thought I was going to get fired. I shot my boss an email telling her we’d had a little mishap with the turkey but all was ok. (Never want your boss surprised by anything or hear it second hand, right?) I ran into Karl Rove, who our office reported to, and tried to get a feel for whether this was as a disaster IRL (in real life) as it was in my head. He laughed. Ok, so maybe I won’t get fired.
We had to quickly collect ourselves and finish getting things set for guests to start arriving. The president of the NTF gently joked, “This is why we bring two birds. Just in case one doesn’t make it.” Face palm.
Guests were set and the President made his way out to the Rose Garden to receive and pardon the turkey followed by brief remarks. The White House did a cool thing via their website at the time I was there. Not sure if this is still the case, but children – and adults – could go to the website and vote for the names of the Thanksgiving Turkeys. Truly a democratic process. Anyway, the President opened his remarks with revealing the name of the turkeys: Flyer and Fryer. Couldn’t have been more fitting. He said something along the lines of how the dogs had already tried to meet Flyer earlier that morning, and offered a smiling glance off to the side, toward where staff and I were standing. Whew. So maybe I really won’t get fired.
I flew home to Texas that night to be with my family for Thanksgiving, which was the next day. My mom and dad were quick to mention they saw the Turkey Pardoning on television and thought the event looked and seemed to go good. Little did they know…
If you stayed with me to this point, you’re a champ. And hopefully it made you laugh a little!
Happy Thanksgiving from our family to you and yours! And may you have no drama with any turkeys this holiday!
PS Please note that the turkeys went on to live out their days on a farm in Virginia. None were hurt in this particular incident. Neither were the dogs, although I did not go out of my way to pet them through the remainder of my time at the White House.