The delivery of a Thanksgiving turkey to the president has a long history. Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has been presenting the president with a live turkey and two dressed ones to mark the traditional start of the holiday season. With the exception of President Kennedy in 1961, most of these birds, until 1989, were eaten. In 1981 Ronald Reagan was asked what he was going to do with the turkey presented to him by the National Turkey Federation, and the president answered honestly, “Eat him.”
Here is video of Reagan eyeing up his future turkey dinner:
The tale of President Lincoln and a Thanksgiving turkey is a bit of interesting folklore. The story goes that President Lincoln’s son Tad became attached to a Christmas turkey in 1863. Instead of eating the turkey, it was kept as a pet, which Tad named Jack. There is no evidence to confirm the truth of this story, and even if it is true, Lincoln didn’t pardon the turkey, he decided to let his son keep it. However, like many of the stories about Lincoln it may be true, or it might not. It is another story about the humanity of one of our mythic presidents.
It took until 1989 when George H.W. Bush aimed the family’s “compassionate conservatism” at poultry by beginning the official presidential turkey pardon tradition. At the time, President Bush declared, “This fine tom turkey has been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” (The most lasting legacy of George H.W. Bush’s presidency may turn out to be the presidential turkey pardon.)
Bill Clinton delivered one of the most famous turkey pardon statements in 1993. The then president said, “So many of my predecessors have participated in this—[inaudible]. I actually didn’t mind it. I think it’s kind of funny, and it’s an annual ritual. As I said, it’s a little easier for me because I’ve been around turkeys all my life. I didn’t mean it like that—[laughter]— and I come from a State that grows a lot of turkeys. We also have a huge wild turkey population at home, too, so it’s not as alien an experience for me as it would be for some people.”
Video of Bill Clinton pardoning a turkey in 2000:
In the years that followed the turkey pardon ran smoothly until 2007 when the turkey fought back.
Unlike Bush, President Obama has managed to peacefully coexist with the turkeys that he has pardoned.
Here is Obama’s 2011 pardon:
What you will notice in the videos from Reagan through Obama is how much the tradition of the presidential turkey pardon has grown. The turkey pardon is now one of the official kickoffs to Thanksgiving. Pardoned turkeys no longer get a free trip to Disneyland to be the grand marshals of the Thanksgiving Day parade, but this is a good thing as 50% of the turkeys sent to Disney died within a year.
The turkeys pardoned by President Obama will be sent to George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon estate where they will take part in the Christmas at Mount Vernon display.
The presidential turkey pardon has had its share of odd and funny moments, but Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving until the the turkey has been pardoned.
Mr. Easley is the founder/managing editor and Senior White House and Congressional correspondent for PoliticusUSA. Jason has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. His graduate work focused on public policy, with a specialization in social reform movements.
Awards and Professional Memberships
Member of the Society of Professional Journalists and The American Political Science Association