Free Bird: the Thanksgiving Turkey Presidential Pardon
Known today as the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation, the traditional presidential pardon started, unofficially, with President Truman in 1947. According to scholars, there’s no record of him actually pardoning any turkeys. In fact, he admitted to eating some of them.
Today, the turkey is typically a Broad-Breasted White domestic turkey, given to the president by the National Turkey Federation.
In 1963, President Kennedy offered his turkey amnesty (but did not actually say “pardon”), even though it had a sign reading “Good Eating, Mr. President” draped across its neck. Four days later he was assassinated.
Although the press called the tradition a turkey “pardon”, most president did not officially use the term. Considering it is one of the most sweeping powers of the Executive Branch, presidents didn’t like to use the word lightly.
The National Turkey Federation chooses between 50-80 birds, then trains them to become accustomed to crowds, flash photography and travel, eventually whittling the field down to a dozen birds.
From roughly a dozen candidates, two are selected to participate in the tradition: a primary and a backup. The names of the turkeys are chosen by schoolchildren and the birds are flown to DC the night before the ceremony.
On average, the pardoned turkeys are 21-week-old tom turkeys that weigh 40 pounds or more. Turkeys grown for commercial consumption typically don’t grow that large or long.
President Carter is the only president that refused to participate in the ceremony. Given that he was an actual, lifelong farmer, his lack of sentimentality for turkeys is understandable. Instead, his wife, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, conducted the “pardon.”
In 1987, President Reagan first used the word “pardon” applied to the turkey tradition. He used the term as a tongue-in-cheek joke. With the Iran-Contra Affair knocking at his door, the press had been speculating on his actually using the presidential pardon.
The Broad-Breasted White turkeys used for the ceremony are bred for size and not for health. As they grow older, they often have problems with obesity and have only 2-3 years life expectancy.
The backup turkey is known as the “vice” turkey, although they have only been used a few times. Since 2005, the pardoned turkey often serves as Grand Marshall in Disneyland’s Thanksgiving parade.
The popular drama ‘The West Wing’ aired an episode revealing the turkey was going to be slaughtered anyway. This is not true. Both the primary and “vice” turkey are spared and live out their lives, typically, in a petting zoo.
Mount Vernon once displayed the pardoned turkeys, but ceased doing so, considering turkeys tainted the Virginia landmark’s historical accuracy.