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The surprising history behind the Thanksgiving turkey pardon

The tradition of the U.S. president’s pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving was repeated once again at the White House, as President Trump performed the ritual before heading to Mar-a-Lago. But what started this peculiar custom? Yamiche Alcindor reports on the surprising history behind the holiday practice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Before departing the White House for his resort home in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, this afternoon, President Trump handed out another presidential pardon, this time to a recipient who gobbled up the spotlight.

    Yamiche Alcindor reports on how the annual Thanksgiving tradition began.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I hereby grant you a full pardon.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Call it a feather in his cap, president Trump taking part in an old Thanksgiving custom, sparing one fortunate turkey from the Thanksgiving dinner table and naming an alternate.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Thanksgiving is a time of great American traditions, and today we continue a very special one, when a lucky turkey gets a presidential pardon. That turkey is so lucky. I have never seen such a beautiful turkey.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    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.

  • Bill Clinton:

    President Truman was the first president to pardon a turkey.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    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 71 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.

    In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was the first to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey. 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 term pardon when he was talking turkey in 1987.

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

  • George 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.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Exactly. These turkeys are not sitting ducks. They rode 1,400 miles for their freedom this year, from South Dakota to Washington, D.C. They even spent some time 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.

  • Bill Clinton:

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

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    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. The names of that year's turkeys were chosen in a vote on the White House Web site.

  • 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.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    When President Obama pardoned his final turkeys, he said he wouldn't stop, even after leaving office.

  • Barack Obama:

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

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Barack Obama:

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

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    This year's finalists, Peas and Carrots. The top turkey was selected in an online poll, and President Trump endorsed the results.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This was a fair election. Unfortunately, Carrots refused to concede and demanded a recount, and we're still fighting with Carrots. And I will tell you, we have come to a conclusion. Carrots, I'm sorry to tell you, the result didn't change.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

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