Pardoning the Turkey: A presidential tradition


President George W. Bush (Special photo)

Thanksgiving is a time of tradition. From parades and shopping to football and family, there are many ideas associated with the holiday.

There is one such tradition that even the turkeys can be grateful for —the presidential pardon.

Beginning in 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented the sitting President of the United States with a turkey — which more often than not, ends up on the dinner table. But at some point in American history, that changed.


President Gerald Ford (Special photo)


President John F. Kennedy (Special photo)

There’s some confusion as to how this presidential pardon got its start. Some stories allege that President Abraham Lincoln pardoned his son Tad’s pet turkey at the child’s pleading.

Another story quotes President John F. Kennedy as saying of his turkey, “Let’s just keep him.”

However, it was President George H. W. Bush’s pardoning of his Thanksgiving turkey in 1989 that officially marked the beginning of this American tradition.


President John F. Kennedy’s dog checks out the pardoned turkey. (Special photo)


President Richard Nixon (Special photo)

Since that time, each year, two turkeys are pardoned by the President. Like a pageant, one turkey is chosen as the year’s official spokesbird with one chosen as an alternate in case the first bird is unable to perform its duties.

These birds also get their 15 minutes of fame.

In 2005 and 2006, the lucky turkeys were flown first-class to Disneyland in California where they served as honorary grand marshals for Disneyland’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

These pardoned turkeys have then happily lived out the remainder of their days on ranches and farms. Since 2010, the turkeys have been sent to a historic spot of American patriotism: President George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.


President Ronald Reagan (Special photo)


President Harry Truman (Special photo)

Like Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web,” they never fear an untimely death again, even though the life expectancy of these turkeys is usually only one to two years. Because commercially-bred turkeys are raised for consumption, they are fed high-calorie and high-fat diets that enable them to quickly gain weight. This is considered to be one reason behind their shortened longevity.

So though it may only be for a short while, turkeys named Marshmallow, Yam, Cobbler, Gobbler, Courage and Liberty have given thanks for the gift of life. Two more will join their ranks this year, continuing American tradition.

Those are two lucky birds.