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The Presidential Turkey Pardon

The political world is full of weird traditions and silly ceremonies but surely the most ridiculous of these has to be the pardoning of a Thanksgiving turkey! The President of the United States is now in the habit of pardoning a turkey and sparing its life during the build-up to Thanksgiving. But how did this strange formality find its way into the presidential schedule?

The Thanksgiving Turkey

Since 1947 the President of the United States has been presented with a Thanksgiving turkey by representatives of the turkey breeding industry. The first president to receive a turkey was Harry Truman and there is no evidence that he ever pardoned one of the birds. Indeed, he was known to have eaten them as was Dwight Eisenhower. But in 1963, just four days before his assassination, John F. Kennedy spared his turkey and sent it back to the farm.

The First Pardon

Kennedy did not refer to his act as a pardon but at least one newspaper did. President Nixon also spared some of his birds but the first president who is on record as having pardoned a turkey is Ronald Reagan. No surprise there then!

In Reagan’s defence the first pardon was issued in response to the criticism he had received over the Iran-Contra affair. He had been asked whether he would consider pardoning Oliver North and used an impromptu turkey pardon as a means to deflect awkward questions. Reagan then failed to pardon his turkey during his last year of office. Perhaps he forgot!

Making it Official

The following year, Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush instituted a pardon as a permanent feature of the turkey presentation in response to complaints from animal rights campaigners. Since 1989, at least one turkey presented to the White House has been taken off to a farm to live out its natural life.

One wonders what the turkeys are actually being pardoned for! There is something truly weird about watching the most powerful person on the planet issuing a pardon to a turkey.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama has now pardoned his last turkey, at least officially, but has vowed to carry on the tradition privately after he has left office. Obama is fond of a corny joke or two during his turkey pardons.

"I want to take a moment to recognise 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."

But he managed to resist the temptation to reference Donald Trump!

Life of Luxury

Being selected as the White House turkey is a great gig. This year the lucky bird and an alternate stayed at the prestigious Willard Intercontinental Hotel the night before the ceremony. There was a vote to decide which of the birds should receive the pardon but, in the end, both did. The birds have now been sent to their permanent home at Virginia Tech’s newly built "Gobblers Rest" exhibit.


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