Tomorrow, President Obama will participate in one of the most highly visible traditions of the presidency – the ceremonial pardon of White House turkeys. He says he is “puzzled” the tradition endures. Indeed. What offense do the turkeys commit?
Early in his administration, critics observed Obama had pardoned more turkeys than human beings. Animal rights activists were never fond of the fowl exercise. PETA’a web page details the “grim fate” of White House turkeys. One year, the President’s daughters were blasted for their supposed inappropriate attire and demeanor. Last year, Huffington Post speculated Obama “hates every minute” of these affairs and usually looks like he wants to be “anywhere else.”
This year, he could turn it all around.
He could instantly transform a mindless, awkward exercise into a glowing moment in his presidency, a moment dramatically capturing the values and aspirations central to what will be an enduring hallmark of his legacy: criminal justice reform.
In 2011, President Obama quoted the great American writer, and New Yorker, O. Henry (1862-1910), who called Thanksgiving "the one day that is ours ... the one day that is purely American." O. Henry achieved fame and notoriety in his day as a writer of short stories - many with surprise endings and/or notable twists. To this day, school children all across the nation read (or see films on) The Gift of the Magi and The Ransom of Red Chief, among other works. On September 11, 2012, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in honor of what would have been his 150th birthday.
When O’ Henry died, however, most of the world (including friends and family) learned - for the first time - that his real name was William Sydney Porter and that, in 1898, he had been convicted of embezzling about $1,100 while working as a teller at the national bank in Austin, TX. The result was five-year prison sentence. This revelation was so shocking many suspected it was some kind of odd joke. Others were convinced Porter must have been wrongly convicted.
President Obama is making historic use of the pardon power with commutations of sentence. He aims to release persons who have received harsh prison sentences under old laws featuring mandatory minimum sentences. The President has also focused on individuals who have committed minor, non-violent (usually drug) offenses and have served a considerable portion of their sentences.
The President has said that his faith encourages him to “believe in the idea of redemption, that people can get a second chance, that people can change.” He celebrates the idea of “giving someone a second chance,” even after a “major downfall.” Consequently, he has tried to commute the sentences of those who have exhibited signs of change, rehabilitation, worthiness of that second chance.
O. Henry / Porter, was a first-time, non-violent offender. His offense was minor, but he was sentenced under a mandatory minimum sentence law. He then became a ‘model’ prisoner, given positions of responsibility and allowed to work and go for walks outside of prison walls (for considerable distances), at will, without escort. His sentence was even reduced by two years for “good behavior.” Whatever his reputation may have been for anything else, O. Henry was a law-abiding, productive member of society for the remainder of his life.
Porter never asked for a presidential pardon, but could have easily gotten one. Presidents were much less hesitant to forgive back then. During his life after prison, almost 30 pardons and commutations of sentence were granted for similar crimes, most to persons who committed more serious offenses and served less time. The explanations for these grants in the Annual Report of the Attorney General make it clear: an O. Henry application would have been very strong. Everything we know suggests he was simply too ashamed of his conviction.
President Obama should now grant a posthumous pardon to O. Henry.
An O. Henry pardon, at Thanksgiving, would likely prompt significant discussion and commentary - with or without the assistance of the White House - for many years to come, in biographies, literary compilations and textbooks and in thousands of classrooms across the nation. It would also send a very strong, specific message more relevant now, than ever before: Forgiveness is an important, necessary feature of our system of criminal justice. People change. Rehabilitation and redemption happen.
P.S. Ruckman Jr. is a professor of political science and Editor of the Pardon Power Blog. George Lardner Jr., a former Washington Post reporter, is scholar in residence at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.