The bizarre, complete history of presidential turkey pardoning

From punkin chunkin to polar bear plunges, Americans have a lot of weird traditions.

Despite being on hiatus, the ever-insightful John Oliver decided weigh in on one such oddball custom over the weekend, that of turkey pardoning. As usual, the Internet’s favorite political comedian was dead on in his observations, nailing how ironic the annual Presidential Turkey Pardon really is. “There is something profoundly strange,” he mused, “about a President making a show of pardoning one turkey, to mark a holiday on which everyone, the President included, consumes an estimated 46 million birds.” 

Of course, overall, the segment was intentionally light, with Oliver continuing, “The whole thing is so strange, if we’re going to pardon one turkey, we should pardon them all. Or, we should put them all on trial… It would be an open-and-shut case, because let’s be honest here, every single turkey is guilty. Specifically, guilty of having delicious bird parts that should be serving time in the prison of my mouth.”

It is funny to think how we laugh at the fun, kitschiness of the turkey pardon every year, only to go forth (assuming you are a meat-eater) and devour plate fulls of said bird like no one’s business. Nevertheless, the muddled history of the turkey pardoning reflects a tradition which, somehow, has become not only an integral part of Thanksgiving but also representative of the changing face of America.  

1863: Lincoln is the first President to pardon a turkey… sort of

Though this is not officially recorded as a presidential turkey pardoning, many believe that the tradition technically dates back to Abraham Lincoln’s son, Tad. Tad was a great lover of animals, keeping two ponies in the White House stables, as well as a pair of goats named Nanko and Nanie, whom he reportedly hitched to a chair and drove through the East Room while his mother, First Lady Mary Todd, was giving a reception at one point.

Needless to say, the kid was allowed to get away with a lot. One anecdote has a politician mentioning that he “just had an interview with the tyrant of the White House”the man was referring to Tad. This tyrannical nature was revealed again when the Lincolns were given a turkey for their big dinner not at Thanksgiving, but at Christmas. Tad didn’t exactly see the bird as a meal, however, and decided to name him Jack. The two spent a lot of time together, and Jack apparently followed Tad around as he explored the White House grounds. 

Come Christmas Eve, when Honest Abe decided to break the news about Jack to his young son, Tad wasn’t standing for it. Eventually, Tad got his way as usual, and persuaded his father that Jack deserved to live. Supposedly, Abraham Lincoln wrote his son a card with special reprieve for Jack, thus sort of instituting the first ever Presidential Turkey Pardon.

There is evidence that indicates Jack hung around for awhile at the White House. One account has the bird hanging out with a bunch of soldiers, in line to vote. The story goes that when Lincoln playfully asked Tad if Jack would be casting a ballot as well, Tad answered, “Oh, no. He isn’t of age yet.”

Like everything else about turkey pardoning, the tale of Tad and Jack is pretty silly. However inadvertently, tyrannical little Tad Lincoln would go on to predict coming concerns about eating meat decades before they arose. As John Oliver said, there’s something strange about humanizing a creature before we guzzle up a bunch of its brethren. Whether Tad thought about that specifically is unlikely; he was an 8-year-old kid, after all. But his attachment to Jack does demonstrate the problems Thanksgiving would one day represent for non-meat eaters.

1947: President Truman takes part in the first “National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation,” but doesn’t pardon the bird

Harry S. Truman is often credited as the first president to officially pardon a turkey, but this not actually the case. Truman was the first president, however, to be presented with a bird by the National Turkey Federation, as a part of a ceremony on the Rose Garden that continues to this day. 

Again, in Truman’s case, the turkey he received was intended for Christmas dinner, not Thanksgiving. Regardless, the whole business made for a made for a great photo op, which is why the misinformation about Truman and turkey pardoning has endured for so long. 

In fact, the rumor has become so widespread, the Harry S. Truman Library saw fit to comment on it in 2003. In reality, there’s no recollection of the Trumans being particularly fond of animals, and some sources claim that Truman made comments about the turkeys he was presented with being, “destined for the family dinner table.”

1963: Kennedy (maybe) spares a turkey’s life

Not a lot changed between Truman and Kennedy as far as the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation goes. Most records indicate that up until the Reagan administration, the Commander-in-Chief was always happy to eat the bird he received. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s view of the event dictated that a “turkey to be dressed”and we ain’t talking tuxedos—was to be delivered to the president’s table. The phot- ops continued, but the bird was always destined for the First Family’s stomach.

However, when the National Turkey Federation presented John F. Kennedy with his bird in 1963, adorned with a sign that read, “Good Eatin’ Mr. President,” Kennedy is said to have taken mercy on his feathered friend, remarking, “Let’s just keep him.”

Today, this is largely thought to have been intended as a joke more than anything else. Other versions have Kennedy taking one look at the lackluster turkey he received and muttering, “We’ll just let this one grow.”

1987: President Reagan jokingly institutes the first Presidential Turkey Pardon

Here’s where things get interesting. The first time that a sitting president actually talked about pardoning a turkey in a public setting occurred in 1987, when Ronald Reagan was in the midst of dealing with the The Iran-Contra Affair. In an attempt to deflect attention from questions regarding whether he would pardon Lt. Col. Oliver North and former national security adviser John Poindexter, Reagan said that he would have pardoned the turkey he had received for Thanksgiving that year had it not already been heading to a petting zoo.

There’s no other indication that Reagan made attempts to pardon the donations from the National Turkey Federation throughout his presidency, but this bit of humor on his part is still significant. That Reagan used the turkey to distract from such an important issue perfectly demonstrates the reason many cannot stand the tradition to this day. Moreover, it emphasizes why the president is frequently criticized for attempting to use levity in serious situations.

1989: George H. W. Bush makes it official

Apparently, Reagan’s successor liked his approach of using fowl as a national icebreaker so much, he decided to make it a part of his legacy. Hence, in 1989, under President George Herbert Walker Bush, the first official Presidential Turkey Pardon commenced. “He will not end up on anyone’s dinner table,” Bush said. “He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”

2000: The West Wing makes fun of turkey pardoning

By the year 2000, the turkey pardon had been cemented as a piece of American pop culture. This was most evidenced by a season two episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, wherein President Bartlet is asked to pardon a second turkey, after a mix-up with the first one. Unsurprisingly, the President has a hard time taking the request seriously, claiming that he doesn’t want to “get a reputation for being soft on turkeys,” along with some other quippy, Sorkin dialogue. 

It’s an amusing moment, if for no other reason than it shows how ridiculous it is that any President could really take such a showy exercise seriously.  

2001: President George W. Bush is attacked by the Turkey he’s pardoning

Look, there’s not much else to say here. Just watch the clip and enjoy this enthralling battle of wits.

2008: George W. Bush vs. Turkeys: Part Two

Actually, this time Bush wasn’t going up against a turkey itself, as opposed to those defending the turkey. By 2008, certain records indicated that White House chefs roasted the birds, and the Humane Society decided to get involved. “This is one of those ludicrous traditions that lays bare many of our contradictions towards animals,” said Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society’s President. “I don’t think it’s a scandal that the president slaughters another bird… I thought everybody knew this was a bit of a charade.”

Neither the White House nor the National Turkey Federation responded to Pacelle’s comments. However, he did manage to bring extra attention to the treatment of turkeys that are raised on commercial farms. In some ways, the was the beginning of the real backlash against America’s turkey pardoning tradition.

2012: The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ask Obama to stop the tradition

President Barack Obama has definitely gotten some good zingers in during his turns at the turkey pardoning ceremony. But one group that hasn’t been laughing is the PETA. In 2012, they sent a letter to the President, asking him to sever his relationship with the “turkey-killing industry.” Since then, the controversy over the Presidential Turkey Pardoning has only ramped up.

2013: Morrissey gets involved

You didn’t really think Moz was going to sit this one out, did you?

Always the defender of animal rights, last year, indie rock legend Morrissey penned an open letter on his fansite, True To You, entitled “Thankskilling.” Turns out, he hasn’t found Obama’s turkey jokes too funny either. 

“Please ignore the abysmal example set by President Obama who, in the name of Thanksgiving, supports torture as 45 million birds are horrifically abused; dragged through electrified stun baths, and then have their throats slit. And President Obama laughs. Haha, so funny!” Morrissey writes. “Further, the meat industry is responsible for 51% of human-caused greenhouse-gas emission, therefore the embarrassingly stupid White House ‘turkey pardon’ is open support for a viciously cruel and environmentally irresponsible industry.”

And the backlash continues. This year, PETA decided to bypass President Obama altogether, choosing instead to address his daughters, pleading with them to ask their father to end the “offensive turkey pardon.”

Taking a similarly disparaging stance, Vox’s Brad Plumer also wrote a merciless takedown of the tradition.

Turkeys bred for food now grow to an average of 30 pounds, much bigger than their wild ancestors.  (The two turkeys that were pardoned in 2013, Caramel and Popcorn, weighed over 37 pounds apiece.) These domesticated turkeys are often so big that their skeletons can’t support all that heft. They frequently develop bone deformities and degenerative joint diseases and suffer heart failure or bleeding around the kidneys. Many are incapable of breeding on their own.

So it’s no surprise that most pardoned turkeys typically die within a year of their White House visit, their overburdened frame giving out at last. One of last year’s turkeys, Popcorn, ended up passing away in the heat in June 2014—after a mere half year of freedom. Caramel is still alive in Mount Vernon, though if history is anything to go on, his days are no doubt numbered.

“This isn’t an attempt to persuade anyone to go vegetarian. (I like turkey just fine, myself),” Plumer asserts, concluding, “the main point is that we don’t really need an elaborate government ceremony designed to obscure the origins of our food.”

Plummer also suggests that the turkey pardon sort of makes a mockery of the actual Presidential Pardon. He says, “After this week, Obama will have “pardoned” 12 turkeys in all—turkeys that, again, have never been charged with a crime (as best we can tell, though if you have evidence to the contrary, by all means pass it along). By contrast, Obama will have only pardoned or commuted the sentences of 62 human beings. The latter is still a record low for modern-day presidents.”

Presidential pardons are, in many ways, a humorless topic. And there’s definitely nothing amusing about America’s corporate food industry. Both of these issues merit intense consideration, preferably sooner rather than later.

That said, for better or worse, the Presidential Turkey Pardon looks like it’s here to stay. The government even tried to get social media involved last year, creating a #teamcaramel and a #teampopcorn, and encouraging people to vote for their favorite turkey on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

It is sort of grim that Thanksgiving finds us personifying cute, little turkeys in any way that we can, as we prepare to chow down on that very animal. But the inherent absurdity in this is also what lends the tradition so well to humor. Not to mention, there are bigger cultural problems with Thanksgiving than what we eat that day. It doesn’t hurt to educate yourself on the larger implications of the turkey pardon. 

But that said, perhaps we should also be thankful we live in a country where most of us have enough food to spend time paying attention to something like this in the first place. 

Photo via donjd2/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.