The birds made the 9-hour drive from Ohio to Washington in a white Dodge Caravan on Monday. "I got them here, these are my babies, they're healthy," said Cole, looking at them admiringly. Inside the room, paid for by the National Turkey Federation, the birds were panting, which Cole said they did to cool themselves. The birds waddled slowly around the room, bobbing their heads. They puffed out their feathers and made small grunting noises.
Cole, who was staying in an adjoining room, said the turkeys' gobbling at their television kept him up as he tried to sleep Monday night. "I think CNN was on," he said. CNN aired coverage well past midnight of a much more serious news story: protests in Ferguson, Mo., following a grand jury decision to not indict a white officer in the shooting of an unarmed black man.
Last year, the White House made much ado about its turkey voting contest, which appeared a day before the pardon and included audio clips of the birds' gobbling. But this Thanksgiving, which falls during a tough news week for the administration, there was little social-media fanfare.
This year's birds, at about 50 pounds each, are technically in violation of Willard hotel policy requiring all pets to weigh no more than 40 pounds. Before they were dubbed Mac and Cheese, the turkeys were nicknamed Virgil and Homer, the first and middle names of Gary's father, who established Cooper Farms in 1938.
The Coopers began with 66 birds, hatched in early July. By last week, Cole had narrowed the presidential flock down to about 15—the ones with the best plumage and walks. One night, he said in an interview last week, "two of my biggest birds in there come walking up to me and they were just in full strut, so they were puffed up and trying to show their colors to me, and they naturally kind of picked themselves."
The presidential flock was exposed to different noises as they grew to prepare them for the crowds and cameras during Wednesday's pardon. They've heard everything from the hum of lawnmowers and electric fans to AC/DC, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. And a lot of Kenny Chesney. Here's a video of the flock gobbling along to "American Kids."
Willard hotel manager James Ryan said he hasn't received any complaints about the turkeys, whose gobbling can be heard at the end of the hall. The Willard, where presidential turkeys first stayed in 2008, will give the room a deep clean after the turkeys check out, complete with a shampoo for the carpet.
Farmers have been delivering hand-picked turkeys to the White House since Ulysses S. Grant was president. Those went into the oven, of course. Presidents have been sparing the birds on and off since then, including during the Lincoln, Kennedy, and Nixon administrations. The official pardon began with George H.W. Bush in 1989.
The annual pardon can be a divisive—or pointless—affair. For some, it's a reminder of the the millions of other turkeys whose lives are not spared at Thanksgiving dinners across the country. For others, it's an insult to the humans who don't get pardoned, particularly during the Obama administration. For turkey farmers like the Coopers, however, the ceremony is a point of pride. "It's kind of the pinnacle of the turkey industry to get to this point," Cole said.