Why Did We Start Pardoning Thanksgiving Turkeys, Anyway?

One of the most offbeat pop culture phenomena involving the office of the president is the annual pardon of Thanksgiving turkeys. Here’s how the phenomenon took off—and how associations have helped the whole process along, including this year.

The presidential turkey pardon, taking place Tuesday, is a strange phenomenon that has become a modest, if memorable, part of the White House’s calendar.

It turns out, though, that the phenomenon has newer roots—a lot newer than you might expect.

Not that you can’t find historic lineages dating back more than a century, of course. The White House Historical Association says the first turkey to receive clemency from a sitting president was in 1863, after it had been brought to Abraham Lincoln’s White House for a Christmas dinner.

After that one-off moment, it took quite a while for the concept to coalesce into actual pardoning. Turkeys were commonly presented as gifts to sitting leaders throughout the 20th century—particularly after a conflict between Harry S. Truman and the National Poultry and Egg Board. Truman had launched a campaign of Meatless Tuesdays and Poultryless Thursdays in the fall of 1947, as part of the president’s Citizens Food Committee, a task force aimed at increasing foreign aid in the years after World War II. But the decision to go after poultry in particular led to a public debate with the poultry and egg board, which pointed out, naturally, that Thanksgiving was on a Thursday. Eventually, a truce was reached—and the truce involved a turkey donation to the president.

How Politics Influenced the Event

But what about the actual pardoning of turkeys? Well, that came about in the late ‘80s, during the closing years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as he received a bird destined for a petting zoo during a politically fraught period for the president. Reagan, looking to deflect questions about whether he planned to pardon the main players in the Iran-Contra scandal while receiving the presidential turkey, worked the turkey—a bird named Charlie—into a joke about the pardons.

“If they’d given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him,” Reagan stated during the 1987 event.

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, turned the joke into an actual annual event, meaning it’s only been a tradition for about 30 years—and a truly modern one at that. It’s gone off without a hitch yearly ever since.

Occasionally, the phenomenon has created opportunities for political commentary, such as in 2012, when ThinkProgress noted that Barack Obama’s only presidential pardon that year went to a turkey, a situation that drove activism around the issue of pardons. The commentary may have had an effect—the former president eventually pardoned or commuted the sentences of more than 1,000 people. The commutations were a record for a sitting president.

Talking Turkey

The National Turkey Federation, understandably, has taken advantage of the attention the presidential pardons have afforded the industry. NTF helps to coordinate the event each year, and since 2004, it’s paid for a hotel room for the pardoned turkeys on the night before their big meeting with the president.

As for this year’s turkeys, they came to the White House courtesy of South Dakota, with NTF Chairman Jeff Sveen coordinating a delivery from a farmer in his home state.

“It’s such a fun time for the whole country to come together. It’s an amazing honor for South Dakota turkey farmers,” Sveen told Hungry for Truth, a blog run by the state’s soybean checkoff program.

South Dakota’s turkey industry is no slouch, by the way: The South Dakota Poultry Industries Association notes that the state produces 5 million turkeys annually.

(Michael Goyberg/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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