Once again, for this week of Thanksgiving, a U.S. president “pardoned” turkeys.
“Butter, I hereby grant you a full and complete pardon,” President Trump said, continuing the tradition and addressing a turkey named Butter. “Full and complete.”
Trump said Butter’s companion, Bread, will also be spared.
The president also falsely said, however, “It is said Abraham Lincoln was the first to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey.” (He was the first to spare a turkey, but it was a Christmas turkey. More below.)
The presidential turkey pardon is a strange, misunderstood and, as is evidenced by Trump’s misstatement, confusing tradition. It’s also one that doesn’t go back as far as you might think.
But why do they do it, you ask? Good question. It’s one your author has been asking for 10 years now. And we have answers, including when all this started and who the first president was to pardon a turkey.
First, understand, this event has been sustained by a special interest group — the turkey lobby. The National Turkey Federation, whose website is literally EatTurkey.org, sponsors the event and has spent almost $3 million on lobbying efforts since 1998, according to a search of the Center for Responsive Politics’ lobbying database.
Big Turkey has been giving turkeys to presidents since 1947. But these turkeys were originally meant to be eaten, not pardoned.
The first Thanksgiving turkey on record to receive a reprieve was in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy received a 40-pound turkey with a sign around its neck that read, “GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!”
“We’ll just let this one grow,” Kennedy said.
A Los Angeles Times article from Nov. 20, 1963, about the event the day before was headlined: “Turkey gets presidential pardon.”
A hundred years before that, there is record of Lincoln “pardoning” a turkey, but it had been meant for Christmas dinner, not Thanksgiving.
“[A] live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. … [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared,” according to an 1865 dispatch from White House reporter Noah Brooks, according to the White House Historical Association.
A deflection from a scandal
Kennedy never used the word pardon when referring to his bird. The first president to do so in referring to letting a turkey go was Ronald Reagan — and it was a joke deflecting from the Iran-Contra scandal.
During the yearly turkey presentation in 1987, ABC News’ Sam Donaldson pressed Reagan on whether he would pardon two key players involved in the weapons sale, Oliver North and John Poindexter.
Reagan was already set to let the turkey presented to him go to a petting zoo, as Nixon had previously, and answered: “If they’d given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him.”
After that informal use of the word, the event was formalized by his vice president, George H.W. Bush, in his first year as president.
“Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy,” Bush said in 1989. “He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”
Source: USA NPR