Presidential turkey pardon far from a storied tradition

President Reagan seen with the National Turkey Federation's presidential turkey in 1983.
(American Vantage Media)

WASHINGTON – Forget what you think you know about the presidential turkey pardoning. When President Obama steps into the Rose Garden on Wednesday afternoon with the 2013 National Thanksgiving Turkey, he won’t be following the likes of Washington or Roosevelt in offering clemency.

The ceremony’s story has long been a mix of myth and fact. President Clinton said in 1997 that President Truman was the first president to pardon a turkey, a claim the Truman Presidential Library has dismissed.

And Clinton and President George W. Bush have referred to President Lincoln pardoning his son Tad’s pet turkey, but there’s little documentation to support that claim. Lincoln, to his credit, did set Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. But no turkeys were involved.

President Kennedy is also cited as the tradition’s creator, but instead of issuing a pardon, he merely sent back the National Turkey Federation’s offering in 1963.


“Eventually, the president decided to just send the huge tom turkey, which actually is too large to cook in any normal oven, back to his farm home to help breed better and bigger turkeys for the nation,” an Associated Press report printed in the Los Angeles Times said.

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And President Reagan, when asked about whether he would issue pardons to individuals involved in the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, deflected the questioning by joking about pardoning a turkey named Charlie.

The first official turkey pardon was actually conducted by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. Photos of former presidents alongside turkeys merely document their acceptance of the National Turkey Federation’s bird, not their pardoning.

So take Wednesday’s proceedings with a grain of salt – particularly given that presidential pardons don’t help a turkey’s life span. As U.S. News and World report discovered, only one of Obama’s pardoned turkeys managed to reach its second birthday.

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