Two turkeys are seeking a presidential pardon from the White House. The big birds, who appeared in San Francisco on Friday, want clemency so they don’t end up on anyone’s dinner plate, not even for the President of the United States and his family.
Two actors dressed as Secret Service agents are guarding the pair, known as Turkey One and Turkey Two. Both turkeys are in contention to be presented to President Obama at the annual presidential turkey pardoning ceremony at the White House just before Thanksgiving.
Every Thanksgiving, nearly 50 million turkeys are served at American dinner tables. However, each year, two turkeys are given to the White House and one of them is granted a stay of execution. Unlike most American Thanksgiving rituals, this presidential turkey pardon tradition is a fairly new event.
Two hundred years after George Washington issued the first presidential declaration of a day of public thanksgiving, former President George H.W. Bush appeared before reporters, 30 schoolchildren, and a 50-pound turkey in the White House Rose Garden on November 17, 1989.
The public presentation of a plump turkey to the chief executive days before Thanksgiving had been a time-honored photo opportunity since the 1940s, but President Bush would add a new presidential tradition of his own.
After noting that the turkey appeared “understandably nervous,” former president Bush added the following proclamation.
“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.”
Twenty-five years later, the presidential turkey pardon remains an annual Thanksgiving ritual. However, while Bush formalized the Thanksgiving turkey pardon tradition, he may not have been the first president to issue a stay of execution to a turkey.
The History channel offers a story told about Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad. While President Lincoln and his family occupied the White House, his young son Tad became so attached to a turkey fated for Christmas dinner that he named the bird Jack and led him around on a leash like a pet. Listening to Tad’s frantic appeal to spare the turkey from becoming a part of Christmas dinner, President Lincoln granted a reprieve and freed the pet turkey.
Ten years later, Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose began to send turkeys to the White House for Thanksgiving dinners during President Ulysses S. Grant’s term. Although Vose was a staunch Republican, he was non-partisan when it came to giving out turkeys. He sent turkeys to presidents of both parties until his death in 1913.
In 1946, a pair of poultry industry groups — the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation – took up the tradition of presenting presidents with turkeys for the holidays. That year, the two groups delivered a 42-pound Texas tom turkey to President Harry Truman for Christmas.
President Truman began the ceremony of appearing with the gift turkeys in staged photo opportunities; however, he is mistakenly credited with starting the presidential pardon tradition. The misinformation is so widespread that the Truman Library issued a statement on its website that its staff “has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947 or at any other time during his Presidency.”
As a matter of fact, not only did the turkeys given to Truman and some of his successors fail to receive a pardon, they suffered the opposite by ending up on the presidential dinner table. In 1948, President Truman told reporters that the turkeys given to him “would come in handy” for the 25 people expected for dinner at his Independence, Missouri, home that Christmas.
In another turkey account, 10 days before Thanksgiving in 1953, National Turkey Federation president Roscoe Hill presented a live 39-pound turkey to President Dwight Eisenhower. President Eisenhower said he hoped Hill would kill, freeze, and return the plump turkey to the White House “in plenty of time because I hope to spend Thanksgiving with my youngsters and I want to take him along.”
President John F. Kennedy finally took pity on a gifted bird in 1963 when he spared the life of an enormous 55-pound white turkey wearing a sign around its neck that read, “Good Eating, Mr. President!”
President Kennedy said he had other plans.
“We’ll just let this one grow. It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.”
As the president left the Rose Garden on November 19, 1963, the turkey prepared for its return to a California farm. President Kennedy finalized preparations for his most tragic trip to Dallas three days later.
In 1963, newspapers first reported, “Merciful President Pardons Turkey,” but the first president to use the word “pardon” at the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation might have been Ronald Reagan. During the Iran-Contra scandal that took place in 1987, Reagan evaded reporters’ questions about whether he planned to pardon any of his aides accused of wrongdoing. Later, when he was asked about the fate of the 55-pound turkey he was given, President Reagan joked, “I’ll pardon him.”
Even though some turkeys receive a pardon, they do not live very long. The skeletons and organs of turkeys bred for consumption are unable to support their extreme weight, and usually, the following year, most of the reprieved turkeys die prematurely.
For a number of years, the freed turkeys spent most of their remaining months at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Virginia. Between 2005 and 2009, the big birds were sent to Walt Disney World and Disneyland where they served as grand marshals in the theme parks’ annual Thanksgiving parades.
From 2010 to 2013, the pardoned turkeys were sent to Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. This year, they are going to Turkey Hill Farm at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, to live out their remaining days as free birds.
[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]