I’m writing this column in the second half of January, two weeks after an unprecedented assault on the Capitol building, American government, and reality by a bunch of people whose B.S. detectors may be permanently broken. But in their defense, figuring out what’s true and what’s not isn’t always easy.
For example, if I told you a group that’s under F.B.I. investigation for attempting to start a second civil war takes its name from the 1984 film Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, you might say that’s crazy. And it is crazy, but it’s also true. The long line of irresponsible speech and conspiracy theories has led to this—people channeling their passionate, often incoherent feelings of discontent through bad 1980s movies.
But enough about all that. Let’s talk about a lighter subject, like presidential pardons of turkeys.
It’s a longstanding tradition, one that Donald Trump continued by pardoning turkeys named Drumstick, Peas, Butter, Corn, Rod Blagojevich, Bernard Kerik, Charles Kushner, and Steve Bannon. OK, so strictly speaking, the last four are foul, not fowl, but there’s no doubt they’re turkeys in the finest sense of 1950s and 60s slang—or more specifically, members of the subcategory “jive turkey,” introduced in the 1970s and described in the online Urban Dictionary as “an individual who is prone to exaggerating the truth greatly or an outright liar.”
Thanksgiving turkey pardons have a relatively recent origin, but the presidential pardoning of humans goes back to George Washington, who pardoned 16 people. Woodrow Wilson and F.D.R. are the top all-time pardoners of individuals, with cumulative totals of 2480 and 3687, respectively, but nearly every commander-in-chief has issued pardons and commutations of one kind or another; the only two who didn’t were William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, both of whom died early in their terms.
Pardons have gone to Eugene Debs and Brigham Young, patriotic pirates and Confederate soldiers, Native Americans and George Steinbrenner, among thousands of others. Presidential clemency has been used to correct egregious injustices, like the overly harsh sentences delivered to many nonviolent drug offenders.
Other times, pardons mark the final settlement of difficult periods for the country and an attempt to move on, as with George Washington’s pardons of men involved in the Whiskey Rebellion, or, more controversially, Jimmy Carter’s pardoning of those who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War. It’s the presidential equivalent of changing the subject to the weather during our great national conversation.
But, especially in the last hundred years of so, personal relationships and party loyalty have often, and notably, Trumped (pun sort of intended) such “righting injustice” and “good of the country” arguments. Harry Truman pardoned several corrupt Democratic politicians, George H.W. Bush pardoned six members of the Reagan administration, and Gerald Ford (in)famously pardoned Richard Nixon.
Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a tax evader whose former wife made donations to the Democratic Party and Clinton Library. Clinton also pardoned his half-brother (codenamed “Headache” by the Secret Service), clearing him of drug charges.
But Trump may have outdone them all. When discussing pardons, he’s been brazen, blusterous, and just short of berserk. His list of pardonees looks like Batman’s Rogues Gallery, with Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and other Russia-probe related figures featuring prominently.
Convicted liars and obstructers of justice used to at least have to wait for a new presidential term or two before receiving their reprieves—a recent example is “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s vice presidential aide, who was pardoned by Trump.
But now, we’re witnessing the establishment of a dangerous precedent, in which a president can almost immediately hand over a “Get Out of Jail Free” card to anyone who stays loyal and protects the interests of the POTUS, an implicit tit-for-tat that doesn’t even need to be offered aloud.
Trump brought a certain showmanship to the tradition of pardoning turkeys, befitting his experience as a reality TV show host. In the final weeks of his presidency, I imagined a Trump-hosted game show called “Beg Pardon,” in which guests would vie for his favor while prefacing every statement with, “Mr. Trump, I beg your pardon…” Though there would be some losers in my fictional production (“Rudy Giuliani, no pardon for you!”), the studio audience would find special Oprah-style gifts under their chairs: “You get a pardon! And you get a pardon! And you…”
Thankfully, Trump didn’t pardon the rioters who claimed their entrance into the Capitol building was acceptable because the president “invited” them to enter, as if they were vampires and it was his home. (Following vampire logic, a similar invitation and entry to the White House might have stood up in court. Or at least, in vampire court.)
Trump also decided against—or was talked out of—broad, undefined, preemptive pardons for his family and himself. Self-pardoning may or may not have stood up in court, but either way it would have created an irrefutable impression of inmates running the (Arkham?) asylum, turkeys in the henhouse, or some other tortured metaphor for a chaotic, less than ideal situation.
Many legal scholars say the logic behind preemptive pardons is solid, and that if someone has committed a federal offense, the president can grant clemency even if formal charges haven’t yet been brought. Pardons can’t protect against prosecution of future offenses, so at least we don’t have to worry about the Trump pardonees being given carte blanche to indulge their avaricious impulses.
In concluding the Trump era, it’s interesting to note that his 2020 election experience was presaged by the 2018 Turkey Pardoning Ceremony, in which the now ex-president joked that one turkey, Carrots, “refused to concede and demanded a recount” of the “free and fair election” to determine which turkey would be the guest of honor. Rival turkey Peas got the title, but both turkeys were pardoned.
Still, there can only be one winner, for a turkey poll or a presidential election, and now I need to direct my attention away from Donald Trump. With profligate pardoning all around, it’s time to get mine. I’m not aware of any federal lawbreaking on my part, but as a guy who was raised Catholic, the idea of blanket absolution for past sins holds a certain appeal for me. After all, nothing was better than the feeling of weightless, angelic purity that accompanied those first few steps out of the confessional, even if it didn’t last long before the next list of sins began to accumulate.
So I’d like to address the new leader of the free world directly: President Biden, I know you’re busy getting settled into the White House and all, so pardon me for asking—but do you think you could, well, pardon me?
Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com. His new book Complex Simplicity collects the first 101 editions of this column, along with essays and material published elsewhere. It is now available at Amazon.com or Lulu.com for $25 (print) or $4.99 (ebook), and is just the thing your significant other would love to receive for Valentine’s Day.
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com. His books can be purchased at amazon.com.