The Real Story Behind the Presidential Turkey Pardon

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Turkey Pardon FTR

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The presidential turkey pardon has been a fixture of American culture for so long that many of us have forgotten how the Thanksgiving tradition started. While many people think that granting a gobbler a stay of execution was started by President Harry Truman—likely because he’s the first president to have staged photos with gift turkeys—the tradition was formally kicked off by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. (The idea that Truman began the pardon is so widespread that the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum dedicated a page on its website to dispel the myth.) By the time of Bush’s stay in the White House, it was common for the National Turkey Federation to send live turkeys to presidents, and it was after Bush noticed his gift seemed “understandably nervous,” he stated: “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.” Every president since has saved a turkey from a cruel fate, with the free birds living out their days at farms, Mount Vernon or Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Even though Bush was the first to formalize the turkey pardon, he’s not the earliest leader with a soft spot for feathery friends: A story is told that Abraham Lincoln‘s young son Tad befriended a would-be Christmas dinner, so the Great Emancipator freed the bird; John F. Kennedy postponed the death sentence of a gift turkey, saying “We’ll just let this one grow…It’s our Thanksgiving present to him;” and Ronald Reagan, after avoiding questions about pardoning his accused aides in the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, quipped that he’d pardon the 55-pound turkey presented to him.

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