The first presidential turkey pardon may have occurred in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln’s son, Tad, begged his father to write a presidential pardon for the live turkey brought to the White House in December. The bird was intended for the Lincolns’ Christmas dinner.
If this father-son conversation took place, then we can be assured that the turkey was spared. Lincoln doted on his sons, and they usually got their way. Tad was said to have named the turkey Jack and taught the bird to follow him around the White House grounds (The New York Times, 11-27-2013).
How the Turkey Pardon Came About
After World War II, food shortages were still a problem in Europe, and the U.S. was trying to help. Americans were encouraged to conserve food. In the autumn of 1947, President Truman called on Americans to refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays and poultry and eggs on Thursday. This would help the U.S. government stockpile more grain that could then be sent to starving citizens in post-World War II Europe.
But the Poultry and Egg Board and the Turkey Federation took issue with this. If everyone gave up poultry for Thanksgiving, the market for the birds would crash. To protest, the Poultry Board sent crates of live chickens, “Hens for Harry” to the White House in protest.
In 1948, Truman softened his stance. He accepted two turkeys from the National Turkey Federation, remarking that one would be eaten for Thanksgiving and the other saved for Christmas dinner.
Though Truman never pardoned a turkey, he was the first to make receiving a turkey an occasion. After suffering the bad publicity from the “Hens for Harry” campaign, he needed to demonstrate that the Trumans would enjoy turkey that next year. Of course, this pleased growers and organizations that wanted publicity for the items donated.
First Official Pardon?
We may have to jump forward to 1963 for an official pardon. The White House Historical Association website wrote that in 1963 President Kennedy sent the turkey received from the National Turkey Federation back to the farm where it came from. He must have done so just days before he and the First Lady departed for Dallas.
When Nixon came into the White House, he participated in the traditional ceremony of receiving the turkey, but then he sent those turkeys off to a petting zoo. There was no official pardon given.
The tradition of the official pardon was started by President George H.W. Bush. On November 14, 1989, he announced that the bird “had been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” The turkey went off to live on a farm in Virginia.
Disney and the Turkey Pardon
In 2005, there was a new twist. The Walt Disney Company, in honor of their 50th anniversary, approached the National Turkey Federation. Disney executives pitched to the Federation the idea of taking the pardoned turkeys to Disneyland to serve as grand marshals of the Disneyland parade. After the parade, the turkeys would be given a home in an enclosure in Frontierland near Santa’s Reindeer roundup.
The Federation thought the Disney plan was excellent. Disney provided first class tickets on United Airlines for the two turkeys as well as some of the Federation executives. Reports were that the turkeys really did travel in the first class cabin, albeit in cages. No one would have complained because the rest of the passengers in first class were either Disney or Turkey Federation executives. The connection with Disney lasted until 2009, and the birds were either sent to Disneyland or Disney World.
Since that time, the turkeys have been spared such long trips. They are sent to farms closer to Washington. One year, President Obama threatened to eat the turkeys awaiting pardon, but daughters Malia and Sasha spoke up before the turkeys were on their way to the kitchen.
Obama also said, “I’m told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their birds. You can’t fault them for that; that’s a good-looking bird.”
Because the birds are bred to be eaten, they are generally overweight and do not necessarily last much more than a year after their pardon. Popcorn and Caramel, the two pardoned turkeys, did not enjoy a long retirement. Popcorn died the following November. Caramel lost weight and lasted a little longer.
In 2018, President Trump will pardon two turkeys sent from South Dakota.