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The Presidential Turkey Pardon: A History Of Going Easy On One Bird Every Year

Events | November 27, 2019

George H.W Bush, the first president to officially pardon a turkey. (parade.com)

Traditions offer interesting insights into the people and cultures who begat them. For instance, nothing explains George Costanza's father more aptly than his favorite holiday: Festivus. In the United States, we also observe a rather strange tradition around Thanksgiving time: the annual pardoning of a turkey by the President of the United States.

Unofficially, amnesty for the other-other white meat started with Honest Abe. Apparently, the lanky abolitionist saved the life of a turkey way back when because his son has grown fond of that particular fowl, and he himself was an avid bird lover. However, the official pardoning of Thanksgiving's centerpiece only dates back to the first Bush administration. Let's take a look at the relatively brief but definitely strange history of turkey pardons.

Before President Bush, pardons weren't exactly pardons. (today.com)

A Publicity Pardon

After Lincoln's pardon, many presidents made a show of receiving their Thanksgiving bird. From Truman to Wilson, the commanders-in-chief of the past happily posed for pictures with their extremely temporary new pets, but none of the birds ever received an actual pardon. They all ended up on the First Dining Table, per custom. 

The last pardon JFK ever did (jfklibrary.com)

One Of JFK's Last Pardons

It was John F. Kennedy who first publicly called off the execution of his Thanksgiving dinner-to-be. On November 19, 1963, Kennedy's chosen turkey posed for pictures with his savior adorned with a somewhat confusing sign that read "Good Eating, Mr. President." You might say it was an eventful month for Kennedy.

President Nixon definitely ate this unruly turkey (dailysignal.com)

The Fate Of Turkeys Remained Unknown

Following Kennedy, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan all enjoyed the photo op held during the annual turkey press conference with their "guests of honor," but it remained unlikely that any of these blessed beneficiaries lived long enough to see the pumpkin pie. Still, if the public was at all concerned or even idly curious about the fate of the birds, they didn't show it. Reagan even joked about it during the Iran-Contra affair.

The second President Bush carried on the tradition started by his father. (theguardian)

Animal Activists Organize

It wasn't until the mid-'90s that the public began expressing their unease over the destiny of the turkeys who posed for the annual White House Thanksgiving photos. George H.W Bush was the first to officially appease animal lovers, many of whom had begun picketing outside the White House, declaring that bird would "not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy---he's granted a presidential pardon as of right now---and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here."

A before and after display for President Ford. (history.com)

A Tradition Sealed

Either President Bush received rave reviews for his heartfelt pardon, or none of his successors were willing to become the president who heartlessly reinstated the turkeys' doom. Either way, the official pardon of turkeys became a tradition. According to ABC News, the presidential turkey is chosen from a batch of 20 by "demonstrating showmanship, character and a lack of stage fright." Who knew stage presence could save a life?

The Obama family pardons one of their 16 turkey. They did two a year (history.com)

Turkey Pardon Facts Of Note

• In the 1800s, people began sending turkeys to the president as a gift. In 1947, the National Turkey Federation became the White Houses's official turkey supplier.

• Starting in 2012, the public was given the opportunity to vote on which turkey received the pardon.

• President George W. Bush pardoned the first female turkey, breaking a decades-long run of gender disparity.

• From 2005 to 2009, the turkeys went to Disneyland. They acted as grand marshals for the theme park's Thanksgiving parade. 

Tags: abraham lincoln | American presidents | birds | Bush | Kennedy | picasso self portraits | Thanksgiving

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!