What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

The real story behind the White House turkey pardon ceremony

The presidential pardon is bestowed to one lucky turkey every year in November. But why has theatrical, annual tradition become part of our American holiday traditions? Lisa Desjardins has the answer.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the intersection of theater, tradition and Washington politics, you will find the annual White House turkey pardon.

    Earlier this week, president Trump took his first run at pardoning a bird. But why?

    Here's Lisa Desjardins with an explanation.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Drumstick, you are hereby pardoned.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Call it a feather in his cap. The new president carried on an old Thanksgiving custom, sparing two lucky birds from the dinner table, only one is selected to star in the ceremony.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We are here today to continue a wonderful American tradition.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That tradition has happened every November for the past quarter century. But there are some, let's say, ruffled feathers about how it all got started.

  • President Bill Clinton:

    President Truman was the first president to pardon a turkey.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    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.

  • President Donald Trump:

    He was a tough cookie.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Truman was actually the first president to receive a turkey from the National Turkey Federation seventy years ago. 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 still 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, he 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.

  • President George H.W. Bush:

    Let me assure you and this fine Tom turkey that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Exactly, these turkeys are no sitting ducks. They rode 1,000 miles for their freedom this year from Minnesota to Washington and they spent a few days at a luxury hotel.

    From the White House, they 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.

  • President Bill Clinton:

    This is the eighth I've had the privilege to set free in the Rose Garden.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In 2000, Jerry the turkey from Wisconsin sported a White House pass around his neck. Four years later, the Bush administration also had some fun with the event, the names of that year's turkeys were chosen in a vote on the White House website.

  • President George W. Bush:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    When president Obama pardoned his final turkeys, Tater and Tot, last year, he said that he couldn't stop even after leaving office.

  • President Barack Obama:

    We are going to do this every year from now on!

    No cameras, just us, every year. No way I'm cutting this habit cold turkey.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    President Trump picked up the humor, joking about the Obama pardons.

  • President Donald Trump:

    As many of you know, I have been very active in overturning a number of executive actions by my predecessor. However, I have been informed by the White House counsel's office that Tater and Tot's pardons cannot, under any circumstances, be revoked.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For President Trump's first pardoning, the winning bird and his wing man were selected from a flock of eleven finalists during a turkey pageant. The winners, Drumstick and Wishbone. They know turkey dinners are for the birds.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest