Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Apple #652: Presidential Turkey Pardon

So, you know that bit of tom-foolery (pun) where the President "pardons" a turkey so it won't get killed and eaten for his Thanksgiving dinner?  Everybody says that's such a tradition, and isn't it clever and also humane, and there's all this ceremony around it.

Barack Obama pardoning the turkey -- or is he blessing it?
(Photo from

Well, as traditions go it isn't that old, and in my opinion, it's kind of dumb.  Here are the facts:
  • People have presented turkeys to the White House for a long time, this is true.  The National Turkey Federation has donated turkeys to the WH each year since 1947. But the first 2 Presidents to receive their donation from this group (Harry S Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower) didn't "pardon" the turkeys at all.  They said thank you and ate them.
  • JFK did not "pardon" any donated turkeys, either.  He did say of one that it wasn't big enough so it should be sent back to the farm: "We'll just let this one grow."  Which suggests that after it's had time to grow some more, then we'll eat it.  News reports used the word "pardon," but JFK did not.

Nobody talks much about LBJ's turkey.  I have the feeling that's because it went quietly onto his table.
(Photo from Corbis at Bon Appetit)

  • Ronald Reagan was actually the first President to use the word "pardon" in reference to the donated turkey.  But he wasn't even saying anything like, "I hearby pardon this turkey which has been donated...."  Nope.  He was in the middle of being grilled about the Iran-Contra scandal.  When he was asked if he would pardon Lt. Col. Oliver North and ex-national security advisor John Poindexter, Reagan dodged the question by saying if that year's donated turkey had not already been destined for a petting zoo, "I would have pardoned him."
  • Not sure how that could have satisfied the reporters, but politicians are good at dodging questions.

Ronald Reagan and his helpful press conference prop, the turkey.
(Photo from All This Is That)

  • The first President who used the official pardon in reference to a turkey was George H. W. Bush (the first George Bush).  This was in 1989.  At the turkey press conference -- a function which had started to become an annual thing -- GHWB said of the turkey he had been presented, “Let me assure this fine tom he will not end up on anyone's dinner table. Not this guy. He's been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”

GHWB and his officially pardoned turkey.
(Photo from Getty at Bon Appetit)

  • Every year since, the sitting President has followed GHWB's lead and said he was "pardoning" the donated turkey.
  • But the turkeys that are donated are raised specifically to be eaten.  That is, they're bred to be enormous, nearly 3x the size of their wild-turkey-relatives.  They're raised to be so large that their skeletons can't even support their own weight.  They suffer all sorts of medical maladies due to our now-typical turkey-to-table breeding practices.
  • As a result, nearly all the turkeys that are pardoned die within a year of the pardon anyway.
  • Finally, the true Presidential pardon exists to exonerate someone of a crime.  These turkeys committed no crime.  Animal rights activists might even argue that the crime was committed against the turkeys.
  • I say, If someone gives you a turkey, you first of all say thank you.  And if you're going to breed and raise a turkey to be eaten, you should eat it.  

In Minnesota, the governor pardons the live turkey -- for one day.  The Minnesota Turkey Growers, who provide the live turkey, also donate some 1,180 frozen turkeys to food pantries.
(Photo by Laura Durben at Minnesota Turkey, sourced from MinnPost)

P.S. There is no period after the S in Harry S Truman.  He did not have a middle name, only a middle initial.  Since the S does not stand for anything, using a period is pointless. (pun)

Related entries: Grateful vs. Thankful, Turkeys, Thanksgiving

Snopes, The Ungobbled Gobbler
Mental Floss, Free Bird: The History of Presidential Turkey Pardoning
The Washington Post WonkBlog, The turkey pardon is America's dumbest tradition
LA Times, Presidential turkey pardon far from a storied tradition, Credit GOP for the first official turkey pardon

1 comment:

  1. Delightful post! But if Truman himself put a period after the S, which he did, pointless as it may be, wouldn't that be the way to go? My students have all kinds of punctuation in their names these days. I halfway expect one to be named ? or ! soon.


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