Today is the day of the weirdest of all presidential traditions — the turkey pardon. How did this even become a thing? It turns out the tradition is a very young one that technically only extends back to President George H. W. Bush.
I know. You are thinking, “No! Wait! I’m sure I heard this started with Lincoln… JFK… Nixon… Truman, etc.” There is a lot of myth-making related to turkey pardoning, so the intrepid historian must take this opportunity to set the record straight for this most auspicious* event. The reason Lincoln is often mentioned as the originator of the tradition is that he spared a turkey because his son asked him too, but that was a Christmas turkey. Truman sometimes gets credit because 1947 marked the first year of an official presentation of turkey from the poultry industry to the president. However, it seems Truman didn’t pardon the turkeys but rather they became dinner. Kennedy pardoned a turkey, but apparently he just didn’t think it was quite ready to be eaten. He was reported to have said, “We’ll just let this one grow.”
Richard Nixon was the first to truly spare turkeys by sending them on to a petting zoo. However, it wasn’t done with the pardoning ceremony that we have today. The first time we attached the word pardon to turkeys really had more to do with political deflection. In 1987, with the Iran-Contra scandal roiling around President Reagan, to dodge questions from the press about pardoning anyone involved with the Iran-Contra deal, he jokingly told reporters he would pardon the turkeys if they weren’t already destined for the petting zoo
So, although turkey pardoning was almost a thing for quite awhile, it didn’t become official until 1989 under President Bush. At the ceremony he said, “Let me assure you and this fine tom turkey that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table. Not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now. Allow him to live out his days at a children’s farm not far from here.” Over the years the turkeys have gone to different Virginia farms to live out their days.
And the tradition has only gotten hokier since. Every year a pair of turkeys make their way to the White House from different farms around the country. There are always two in case something happens to one or it refuses to behave for the ceremony. Consider the second turkey an understudy; ready to step into limelight in a moment’s notice. Only one gets the official on-camera pardon, but both turkeys are sent to live out the rest of their lives in turkey retirement. They often have funny or patriotic names, which have included: Liberty and Freedom (2001); Biscuits and Gravy (2004); May and Flower (2007); Pumpkin and Pecan (2008); Mac and Cheese (2014); and Tater and Tot (2016). This year’s turkeys’ names will be announced just before the ceremony.
President George W. Bush injected some election humor into the 2004 pardoning ceremony. “This is an election year,” he said, “and Biscuits had to earn his spot at the White House … Biscuits and his running mate Gravy prevailed over the ticket of Patience and Fortitude. The vice president and I are here to congratulate Biscuits for a race well run. It came down to a few battleground states. It was a tough contest and it turned out some 527 organizations got involved, including Barnyard Animals for Truth.”
President Barack Obama received a mixture of laughter and groans for his puns and turkey humor. He opened the 2016 ceremony by saying, “It is my great privilege — well, it's my privilege — actually, let's just say it's my job to grant them clemency this afternoon.” Another memorable line: “I want to take a moment to recognize the brave turkeys who weren't so lucky. Who didn't get to ride the gravy train to freedom. Who met their fate with courage and sacrifice and proved that they weren't chicken.”
It is certain the 28 year old tradition will continue as President Trump pardons the next poultry pair in just a short while. While we prepare to consume delicious turkeys for Thanksgiving, we can take a moment to enjoy the two who got away. Happy Thanksgiving!
*For the turkey anyway.