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The history of presidential pardons — for turkeys

November 23, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
On the day before Thanksgiving, President Obama continued the annual tradition of pardoning a turkey, with an address rife with Thanksgiving puns. The tradition has continued every November for the past 25 years, but there’s debate about how it all began. Judy Woodruff provides insight into the history of the turkey pardon.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Before the president and his family gather for Thanksgiving, today, he made time for an executive duty: his final pardoning of the turkey as commander in chief.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hey!

JUDY WOODRUFF: The annual tradition sees two lucky birds spared from the dinner table, but only one is selected to take part in the ceremony.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Malia and Sasha, by the way, are thankful that this is my last presidential turkey pardon. What I haven’t told them yet is that we are going to do this every year from now on.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: No cameras, just us, every year. No way I am cutting this habit cold turkey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The tradition has happened every November for the past quarter-century. But there’s debate about how it all got started.

BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: President Truman was the first president to pardon a turkey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that’s not true.

In fact, the Truman Presidential Library says, Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table. Truman was actually the first president to receive a turkey from the National Turkey Federation.

So, who was the first president to pardon a turkey? Lincoln, it appears, was the first on record. But it was a Christmas turkey that his son had taken a liking to.

President John F. Kennedy was the first to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey. In 1963, despite a sign hanging around the turkey’s neck that read, “Good eating, Mr. President,” Kennedy sent the bird back to the farm.

Richard Nixon also gave the birds a reprieve, sending his turkeys to a nearby petting zoo.

Ronald Reagan was the first to use the word pardon when he was talking turkey in 1987.

The turkey pardoning became formalized in 1989, with President George H.W. Bush.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This year, the spared birds will be sent to Virginia Tech University, where they already have a prominent gobbler mascot on campus.

The event has become a White House holiday tradition.

BILL CLINTON: This is the eighth I have had the privilege to meet and set free in the Rose Garden.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In 2000, Jerry the turkey from Wisconsin sported a White House pass around his neck.

Four years later, the Bush administration also had some with fun with the event. The names of that year’s turkeys were chosen in a vote on the White House Web site.

GEORGE W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: This is an election year, and Biscuits had to earn his spot at the White House. Biscuits and his running mate, Gravy, prevailed over the ticket of Patience and Fortitude.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I hereby pardon you from the Thanksgiving table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For his final turkey pardon naming, President Obama took suggestions from the Iowa turkey producers’ children and their classmates.

The winners? Tater and Tot.

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