The history of the presidential turkey pardon

Americans are expected to gobble up more than 40 million turkeys between now and the end of the year. But two massive birds will escape the holiday season thanks to presidential intervention. Stephanie Sy has a look at the history behind the turkey pardon.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Americans are expected to gobble up more than 40 million turkeys between now and the end of the year. But two massive birds will escape the holiday season, thanks to a presidential intervention.

    Stephanie Sy is back with the history behind the turkey pardon.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Turkey isn't on the White House menu this Thanksgiving, at least not this plucky pair, or, should we say, lucky pair.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Which one is Chocolate? And who's Chip?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Biden doled out a morsel of mercy Monday, sparing Chocolate and Chip.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Based on their temperament and commitment to being productive members of society, I hereby pardon — I hereby pardon..

    (TURKEY GOBBLES).

  • President Joe Biden:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The president garnished his speech with dad jokes and strutted out a few zingers for good measure.

  • President Joe Biden:

    The votes are in. They've been counted and verified. There's no ballot stuffing. There's no fowl play.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • President Joe Biden:

    The only red wave this season is going to be a German shepherd, Commander, who knocks over the cranberry sauce on our table.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's a more-than-three-decade-long tradition at the White House. But how it got started, well, that question has ruffled some feathers.

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

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Actually, that's as false as Tofurky.

    Truman was the first president to receive a turkey from The National Turkey Federation 75 years ago, but there's no record of a pardon. According to the White House Historical Association, Truman instead quipped that the birds would come in handy for Christmas dinner. Oh, Truman, that hock.

    So who was the first president to save a turkey? Let the record show it was honest Abe Lincoln. After his young son Tad begged for the bird's life, the Christmas turkey became a pet. President John F. Kennedy was the first to spare a Thanksgiving bird in 1963. Despite a sign hanging around the turkeys neck that read "Good eating, Mr. President," Kennedy sent the gobbler back to the farm.

    No official pardon for Richard Nixon's turkeys, but they were spared from scandal and the table, gifted to a nearby petting zoo. It was Ronald Reagan who carved out a spot in history by being the first to use the word pardon when talking turkey in 1987.

    The tradition 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.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The event has become an annual White House ritual.

  • Bill Clinton:

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

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Some years, turkeys are more domesticated than others, like Jerry, who sported a White House pass around his neck in 2000.

    And some years are more democratic, like in 2004, when the George W. Bush White House let online voters choose the turkeys' names.

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

  • Stephanie Sy:

    2013 saw the turkeys upgrade their D.C. stay to the swanky digs of the Willard Hotel. Every set since has enjoyed its four-star creature comforts.

    While running a-fowl of any tradition is liable to cause a flap, the pandemic brought change to the White House and homes across the country in 2020.

    Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: And we give thanks for the vaccines and therapies that will soon end the pandemic.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    One year later, with the pandemic still lingering, attendees kept their distance, as Biden offered a side of dark humor with his first turkey pardon.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Yes, instead of getting basted, these two turkeys are getting boosted.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    These lucky ducks were among 30 birds raised specifically for this day. They will return to the Tar Heel State, thankful to live out the rest of their lives on the campus of North Carolina State University.

    That's the story. And if you hated the puns, you can ask us to stuff it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's the only "fowl talk" you're going to hear on the "NewsHour" all year long.

Listen to this Segment