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Mac and Cheese won’t be served at the White House this Thanksgiving

President Obama used his executive authority to pardon Mac and Cheese, the two birds who were saved from the Thanksgiving table this year. Who was the first president to give flight to this holiday amnesty? Political director Domenico Montanaro looks back at the tradition.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight, a decades-old tradition played out at the White House again today, one in which, for a change, the turkeys do not get eaten.

    Domenico Montanaro has that.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    In front of an audience at the White House, President Obama presided over his sixth turkey pardoning as commander in chief today. The annual tradition sees two lucky birds spared from the dinner table. Only one is selected to take part in the ceremony.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    I’m here to announce what I’m sure will be the most-talked about executive action this month.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    Today, I’m taking an action fully within my legal authority, the same kind of action taken by Democrats and Republican presidents before me, to spare the lives of two turkeys, Mac and Cheese, from a terrible and delicious fate.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    You are hereby pardoned.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    The tradition has happened every year for the last 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.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    But that’s not true. In fact, the 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. The industry group started giving ceremonial turkeys to American presidents in 1947.

    So who was the first president to pardon a turkey? Lincoln, it appears, was the first on record to spare a bird. 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.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    The Virginia farm where that turkey was sent was in the ironically named Frying Pan Park. That became the home of future presidential turkeys for the next 15 years. But, after that, it was out of the Frying Pan and into Disney, because, hey, you just won a presidential turkey pardon. Where are you going to go next?

    After the five-year stint with Mickey, the turkeys’ next move was to the more sedate confines of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. This year, the spared birds will be sent to this park in Leesburg, Virginia. The property is a well-known turkey haven. It was owned by former Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis, who raised his own birds there in the 1930s and ’40s.

    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.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    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. 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. The vice president and I are here to congratulate Biscuits for a race well-run.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    The Obama White House has taken to social media sites like Instagram to decide which bird goes before the cameras. Mac and cheese might be a side for your Thanksgiving dinner, but they won’t be for the first family this year.

    DOMENICO MONTANARO, “PBS NewsHour.”

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