Why does the President pardon a turkey?

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

George HW Bush enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with troops (ARC 186423)
George H.W. Bush enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with troops in 1990. (Bush Library, ARC 186423)

As I write this, two turkeys are living it up at the “W” hotel across the street from the White House. The turkeys will be dining at the exclusive POV restaurant (as guests, not as dinner) when they aren’t roaming about their suite, and the truth is, no one is quite sure what they’re doing there.

Yes, it’s expected that Barack Obama will use his Constitutionally endowed Presidential pardon to spare the poultry from the chopping block, but no one is quite sure where this turkey tradition began.

Many believe that it was President Truman who first pardoned a turkey in 1947. That was the first year the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board began presenting the White House with a turkey, but all signs indicate that the gobbler was gobbled. In fact, for most of the 20th century, only a few Presidents showed compassion to their feathered friends.

One reporter noted that President Lincoln pardoned a turkey at his son Tad’s request in 1864, and there was an isolated moment in 1963, when President Kennedy allegedly gave the White House turkey an informal reprieve before his death, but these are the only two instances of a President showing pity on their poultry until 1989. It was in that year that turkeys found a consistently merciful leader in President George H.W. Bush.

Why did he do it?

That’s less clear. It was the 200th anniversary of the distinctly U.S. holiday, for one, and it’s possible he was channeling Ben Franklin, who pushed for the turkey as the national bird, but it could have been old-fashioned peer pressure: 30 schoolchildren surrounded the bird at the annual press conference, and the turkey was making quite a stir.

“Our special guest seems . . . understandably nervous,” Bush said, “but 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.”

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