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I Beg Your Pardon: The Strange History Of Presidents Sparing Turkeys

Two male turkeys from North Carolina named Bread and Butter hang out in their hotel room at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington ahead of Tuesday's pardoning.
Image credit: Jacquelyn Martin

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Once again, on this week of Thanksgiving, a U.S. president will “pardon” a turkey Tuesday.

Why, you ask? Good question. It’s one your author has been asking for 10 years now. And we have answers, including when all this started and who the first president was to pardon a turkey.

But first, understand, this is a strange and misunderstood tradition that doesn’t go back as far as you might think and has been sustained by a special interest group – the turkey lobby.

The National Turkey Federation, whose website is literally EatTurkey.org, sponsors the event and has spent almost $3 million on lobbying efforts since 1998, according to a search of the Center for Responsive Politics’ lobbying database.

Big Turkey has been giving presidents turkeys since 1947. But these turkeys were originally meant to be eaten, not pardoned.

The first Thanksgiving turkey on record to receive a reprieve was in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy received a 40-pound turkey with a sign around its neck that read, “GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!”

“We’ll just let this one grow,” Kennedy said.

A Los Angeles Times article from Nov. 20, 1963 about the event the day before was headlined: “Turkey gets presidential pardon.”

A hundred years before that, there is record of Abraham Lincoln “pardoning” a turkey, but it had been meant for Christmas dinner, not Thanksgiving.

“[A] live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. … [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared,” according to an 1865 dispatch from White House reporter Noah Brooks, according to the White House Historical Association.

A deflection from a scandal

Kennedy never used the word pardon when referring to his bird. The first president to do so in referring to letting a turkey go was Ronald Reagan — and it was a joke deflecting from the Iran-Contra scandal.

During the yearly turkey presentation in 1987, ABC News’ Sam Donaldson pressed Reagan on whether he would pardon two key players involved in the weapons sale, Oliver North and John Poindexter.

Reagan was already set to let the turkey presented to him go to a petting zoo, like Nixon also had previously, and answered: “If they’d given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him.”

After that informal use of the word, the event was formalized by his vice president, George H.W. Bush, in his first year as president.

“[L]et me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy,” Bush said in 1989. “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.”

One of today’s turkeys will be spending the rest of its — perhaps limited — days at “Gobbler’s Rest” at Virginia Tech University’s Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

“Virginia Tech has a long tradition of supporting the turkey industry through research and outreach,” said Rami Dalloul, a Virginia Tech professor, in a press release, “so it’s fitting that the Presidential Turkeys becoming part of the Hokie Nation is a new tradition.”

Dalloul, Virginia Tech says, is “a world-renowned poultry immunologist who a few years ago sequenced the turkey genome.”

It’s the fourth consecutive year the pardoned turkey will head there. Expect, by the way, for — despite a contest being run by the White House about which turkey should be pardoned, Bread or Butter — both birds to be spared, as they have in the past few years. The White House is using the “contest” to build its email list.

(People will be able to meet the pardoned turkeys Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. ET at the Livestock Judging Pavilion in Blacksburg, Va. So, if you’re near Virginia Tech with the kids this weekend….)

Previous turkeys have gone to Disneyland and the unfortunately named Frying Pan Park in Virginia.

A confused history

There has been some confusion about the history of the presidential turkey pardon, sowed by none other than a president who was pardoning a turkey.

“Let me thank again the National Turkey Federation on their Golden Anniversary for donating a Thanksgiving turkey to the White House every year for 50 years,” President Bill Clinton said in 1997. “That’s right, now this marks the 50th year when we give one more turkey in Washington a second chance.”

Funny line, but it’s not true.

Clinton then added more explicitly, “President Truman was the first president to pardon a turkey.”

Also false. The Truman Library disputed this in 2003, writing:

“The Library’s staff has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency. Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table.”

Big Turkey may have gotten involved in 1947, but the tradition of sending turkeys to presidents (for their eating) goes back at least 73 years before the industry’s involvement.

Harold Vose of Rhode Island, a man known then as the “Poultry King,” sent unofficial Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys to the White House from 1873 until Vose’s death in 1913, according to the White House Historical Association.

After that, the turkeys came flying from all around the country. The White House Historical Association:

“In 1921, an American Legion post furnished bunting for the crate of a gobbler en route from Mississippi to Washington, while a Harding Girls Club in Chicago outfitted a turkey as a flying ace, complete with goggles. First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925.”

Bread and Butter, this year’s turkeys

This year’s turkeys come from a turkey farm in North Carolina — and they are staying at a fancy hotel in Washington as in past years.

The White House claims “Bread” loves “college basketball and a cold Cheerwine,” while Butter is a bagpipes, sweet potato fries and NASCAR fan.

One thing is clear: this season of impeachment is a good reminder that presidents will have a hard time letting go of this pardon power.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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