President Obama’s pardon yesterday of a turkey named Courage was the latest exercise of a clemency that may (or may not) have first been extended by President Truman in 1947. Because it’s Thanksgiving and children may be reading —and because the l-tryptophan is already kicking in— we will illustrate rather than examine what is really going on.
President Obama attributed his pardon to the pleas of his daughters Sasha and Malia. He said, “I was planning to eat this sucker.”
There is doubt and controversy about whether HST was pardoning the turkey or receiving it from the National Turkey Foundation for the next day’s dinner.
On 19 November 1969, Wally McNamee photographed RN pardoning that year’s bird.
A Nixon Family portrait from 1969 — their first year in the White House.
On Thanksgiving Day 1969 —their first year in the White House— the Nixons invited more than two hundred residents without any families from nineteen DC area old age homes to join them at the White House for a traditional meal including fruit salad, turkey and all the trimmings, and pumpkin pie. The guests, ranging in age from 58 to 93, arrived in busses and were greeted in a presidential receiving line.
The Nixon family —RN, PN and Tricia, Julie and David, and Mamie Eisenhower and David’s sister, her 17-year old granddaughter Susan— welcomed the guests, who were divided between the East Room and the State Dining Room. Everyone was seated at round tables of ten decorated with centerpieces of fall flowers and fruit. Music was supplied by the Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Band and the Marine Corps Band Orchestra; entertainment was provided by the Beers Family folk singers and a balladeer from Colonial Williamsburg.
Several guests responded when RN asked for anyone over 90 to raise their hands. One of them was 93-year-old John W. Graves of Neosho, MO who lived in the National Lutheren Home for the Aged in DC. The irrepressible nonagenarian rose three times — first to tell RN that he was born in Missouri (RN replied: “I know President Truman will be glad we had a Missourian here today.”); then to inform POTUS that “I’ve never had a sick day in my life.” (RN: “I’m going to have the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare come and talk to you and get your formula so we can pass it around the country.”); and, finally, to observe that “My father lived to 93; my sister lived to 94; and there were 10 children, five of us still alive.” (RN: “I want to get your formula too.”)
The New York Times‘ headline for the story of the event: “Nixon Is Outtalked by Holiday Dinner Guest, 93.”
Julie Nixon Eisenhower told the guests that the grace she would say was one that had been used in the Nixon family since she and Tricia were little: “Thank you for the earth so sweet; thank you for the food we eat….”
Proclamation 3944 – Thanksgiving Day, 1969
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA A PROCLAMATION
On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln invited his fellow citizens to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving..” This was the year of the battle of Gettysburg and of other major battles between Americans on American soil. To many, this call for a national day of Thanksgiving must have seemed strange, coming as it did at a time of war and bitterness.
Yet Lincoln knew that the act of thanksgiving should not be limited to time of peace and serenity. He knew that it is precisely at those times of hardship when men most need to recognize that the Source of all good constantly bestows His blessings on mankind.
Today, despite our material wealth and well-being, Americans face complex problems unknown before in our nation’s history. In giving thanks today, we express gratitude for past bounty and we also confidently face the challenges confronting our own nation and the world because we know we can rely on a strength greater than ourselves.
This year, let us especially seek to rekindle in our respective hearts and minds the spirit of our first settlers who valued freedom above all else, and who found much for which to be thankful when material comforts were meager. We are, indeed, a most fortunate people.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICHARD NIXON, President of the United States of America, in consonance with Section 6103 of Title 5 of the United States Code designating the fourth Thursday of November in each year as Thanksgiving Day, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 27, 1969, as a day of national thanksgiving.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twelfth day of November, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred sixty-nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred ninety-fourth.
And, because America was at war, the President issued a separate message to the Armed Forces:
Thanksgiving Day Message to the Armed Forces.
THE PILGRIMS at Plymouth had good reason to express their gratitude to God on that first Thanksgiving Day nearly three and a half centuries ago. Those who enjoyed the abundance of that first harvest had survived in a wilderness where suffering and want were their constant companions. Their faith in God’s mercy was strengthened and sustained in spite of hardship.
Throughout our history, Americans have celebrated this day in both a spiritual and festive fashion, rejoicing in the blessings bestowed upon them by our Creator. Among these, for which we are indeed grateful, is our precious heritage of freedom which you today protect and defend wherever you may serve. Your admirable contribution to our national security insures that this heritage will be preserved.
This Thanksgiving Day provides an ideal occasion for all Americans to acknowledge and give thanks for the courage, devotion to duty, and the loyalty you have demonstrated in service to our nation.
(This article was written for The New Nixon last Thanksgiving. Recently, the editor of The Jewish Press, “America’s Largest Independent Jewish Weekly,” asked permission to use it in the print and on line editions of that paper in the days before Thanksgiving this year. – DRS)
Ever hear of Gershom Mendes Seixas? Well, he might just be the forgotten hero of Thanksgiving.
Our national Thanksgiving narrative is rich with stories about proclamations, gatherings, meals, traditions, football, and of course, the obligatory pardoning of a turkey by the president of these United States. School children rehearse that day long ago when the Plymouth pilgrims broke bread. We note things Lincoln said. And doubtless you have heard about what our first president, George Washington, declared while proclaiming the first “official” national day of Thanksgiving in 1789:
I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
We hear much these days about our “Judeo-Christian” heritage and its early and enduring influence on our culture. A look back at the founding era of our nation reminds us, however, that only about 2,500 Jews actually lived in the colonies in 1776. Usually those of us who speak of that early dual influence are referring to the Christian Bible with its Jewish roots.
But pointing this out is not to say that Jews were not active and represented during the colonial and founding periods, quite the contrary – there are some fascinating and often overlooked stories.
Gershom Mendes Seixas is a case in point. He was “American Judaism’s first public figure.” In 1768, he was appointed hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York – the only synagogue serving the city’s approximately 300 Jewish residents. He was only 23 years old at the time and largely self-taught in the Talmud with much help from his devout father, though never actually an “official” rabbi. In fact, it would be several decades before a rabbi was ordained in America.
Seixas was the first Jewish preacher to use the English language in his homilies. He was a gifted teacher and tireless worker. And when it came to the American Revolution, he was a patriot – as demonstrated by his actions while the colonies were struggling to actually realize the independence that had been recently proclaimed.
His synagogue, like the much of the greater public, was somewhat divided on the issue of independence. But Seixas used all of his persuasive skills to convince his congregation that they should cease operations in advance of the approaching British occupation of the city, during the early days of the conflict.
He fled to his wife’s family home in Connecticut, carrying various books and scrolls precious to the synagogue for safekeeping. In 1780, he accepted the leadership role at a synagogue in Philadelphia, where he became an outspoken cultural voice regularly calling on God to watch over General Washington and the great cause.
When the war ended, he was invited back to resume his work with Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. He returned with the books and scrolls to serve from 1784 until his death 32 years later.
When George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, Seixas was asked to participate as one of the presiding clergyman. This was certainly an act of gratitude by Washington for the preacher’s stalwart support during the war. It was also, though, an expression of Washington’s thinking about the importance of religious freedom and diversity in the new nation.
Later that year, as the nation set aside Thursday, the 26th of November, the date so designated by the president for Thanksgiving, Seixas preached a sermon to his New York congregation.
His Thanksgiving Day message was based on a text from the Psalms where it talked about how King David had “made a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Seixas told his listeners that they had much to rejoice about – “the new nation, its president, and above all, the new constitution.”
Warming to his theme, he reminded them that they were “equal partakers of every benefit that results from this good government,” and therefore should be good citizens in full support of the government. Beyond that, they were encouraged to conduct themselves as “living evidences of his divine power and unity.” He further admonished them “to live as Jews ought to do in brotherhood and amity, to seek peace and pursue it.”
In my opinion, Gershom Mendes Seixas’ sermon is every bit as relevant to all of us 220 years later.
At Air America and The Huffington Post, Mark Green compares Sarah Palin and Richard Nixon. He notes an obvious difference: RN “was vastly more experienced and sophisticated.” He has a point, but one could make the same point about most other political figures, including the incumbent president. Barack Obama is the first White House occupant since Harding with neither military nor executive experience, and even liberal observers are starting to notice the consequences. Leslie Gelb unfavorably contrasts Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy with President Obama’s recent Asia trip, which he says “suggests a disturbing amateurishness in managing America’s power.”
Green notes RN’s ideological pragmatism and asks rhetorically: “When has Palin ever shown such a moderating inclination?” One may find the answer in an Associated Press report from May of 2008:
During her first year in office, Palin distanced herself from the old guard, powerful members of the state GOP. She asked Alaska’s congressional delegation to be more selective in seeking earmarks after the state’s “Bridge to Nowhere” became a national symbol of piggish pork-barrel spending. She stood up to the oil interests that hold great power in Alaska, and with bipartisan support in the statehouse, she won a tax increase on oil companies’ profits.
The biggest similarity, Green says, is that Palin practices the “politics of resentment” by attacking elites. It is true that RN considered himself an outsider, as does Palin. But as James Ceaser and Andrew Busch explain in their book on the 1992 election, Upside Down and Inside Out, “outsiderism” is a very old tradition in American politics. The next time Green goes to one of his party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, he will find himself honoring two practitioners of that tradition.