US Presidents, Turkeys, and Pardons
Turkeys are so indelibly linked to Thanksgiving that it is natural to imagine the delicious birds have been the main dish since the Pilgrims and Wampanoag feasted together in 1621. As revealed in my blog on The Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving last week, turkey was not recorded as part of the menu. However, it certainly could have been one of the “fowl” noted in Pilgrim diaries since the big birds were plentiful in the New World colonies.
As for a traditional main course for the Thanksgiving holiday, there doesn’t appear to be a clear cut timeline as to when, where, or how this happened. It seems to have gradually evolved, and certainly there were many families over the centuries (and still to this day) who did not cook a turkey. Nevertheless, it has obviously been the prevalent choice, including for the First Family dwelling at The White House, for almost as long as our country has existed.
A historical custom dating back to President George Washington was for thankful, appreciative citizens to present edible gifts to the sitting President and family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. This custom merged with the rising popularity of turkeys for dinner in the 20th century, leading eventually to the “Presidential Pardon” of turkeys. Tracing a precise step-by-step of how this came to be isn’t as easy as it may sound but it is fascinating. I’ll do my best to present how the various traditions unrolled.
The first notable turkey to US President connection was Abraham Lincoln. The story goes that a turkey being raised and fattened for Christmas dinner became the beloved pet of son Tad, who named him Jack, so the bird was spared its grim fate. Not an official pardon, but surely Jack was pleased to be evade the huntsman’s axe.
Turkeys took over as standard Thanksgiving fare at the White House when, in 1873, one was sent to President Ulysses S. Grant from Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose. The turkey was personally chosen by Vose “selecting with the utmost care” the “noblest gobbler in all that little state.” Each year until his death in 1913, Vose sent a turkey to the sitting president.
For the next three decades, poultry farmers gifted the sitting president with turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas, typically via organizations ranging from the Girl Scouts to American Legion. It appears to have been fairly consistent, but was not an established event with associated pomp or circumstance.
By 1926, a turkey was the absolute standard, but that didn’t deter a man in Mississippi sending a live raccoon to President Calvin Coolidge. Intended to be eaten for Thanksgiving dinner — raccoon meat called “toothsome” by the sender — Coolidge adopted the raccoon as a pet instead. The first family named her Rebecca, adding her to their White House menagerie that included a black bear, a wallaby, and a pygmy hippo named Billy. The second “pardon” of an intended main course, yet somehow poor Rebecca the Raccoon is ignored. Tragic! LOL!
Beginning in 1947, two large poultry industry groups established the tradition of sending turkeys to the White House. The first one delivered was a 42-pound Texas tom to President Harry S. Truman. The organizational aspect of the gifted turkey inspired Truman, who began the ritual of posing with the turkeys for photographers, elevating the importance into the public’s awareness. Because of the publicity, and Truman’s quip that the bird would “come in handy” for his much bigger planned Christmas gathering, it is often erroneously pointed to as the first turkey pardon. Alas, this is not accurate, as the tom turkey fulfilling his purpose, if you get my meaning.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was gifted a mammoth 55-pound turkey in what was by then an annual event conducted in the White House Rose Garden. During the photo session he spontaneously declared, “We’ll just let this one grow. It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.” True to his word, Kennedy ordered the turkey to be sent to a farm in California. Days later, as this was being done, extending the turkey’s life, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Newspapers in 1963 reported Kennedy’s turkey salvation as “Merciful President Pardons Turkey” but also used the word “reprieve”. By any word, the tragic timing of the turkey pardon would seemingly have cemented it as a standard thereafter. Not so fast! While rightfully credited as the first presidential pardon, for the following twenty-plus years the gifted turkeys were typically eaten at Thanksgiving as intended. A handful of turkeys were spared, such as President Nixon in 1969 and President Ford in 1978, but without fanfare or claims of a “pardon.”
The turkey pardon (both the word and the act) truly entered the equation in 1987 with President Ronald Reagan. Even then it was spontaneous and completely unplanned. During that year’s Thanksgiving turkey gifting photo session, a reporter asked President Reagan about pardoning Iran-Contra aids. Reagan sidestepped the question, pointing at the 55-pound turkey and joking, “I’ll pardon him.” And he did.
Thereafter, the turkey (or turkeys, as a pair were often the norm) were all pardoned. President George H.W. Bush made it official in 1989–
“Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”
Official, that is, in the general sense. There has never been any sort of formalized proclamation or laws passed so no president is bound to pardon the gifted turkey. In 2009, President Barak Obama said, “Thanks to the intervention of Malia and Sasha – because I was ready to eat this sucker – Courage will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate.” He was probably joking, but the point remains. That said, for the foreseeable future, the “Presidential Turkey Pardon” is likely to remain part of the whole patriotic Thanksgiving Proclamation publicity event.
Pardoning of the National Turkey Federation selected live turkey(s) does not mean another turkey(s) didn’t give its life. Thanksgiving dinners at the White House have continually included turkey as the main course, those frozen birds once alive somewhere.
Turkeys pardoned have been sent to various places, usually a farm somewhere, to live out the remaining weeks or months of their lives. The sad truth is that turkeys grown to massive weights specifically for eating are doomed to a very short life.
In 2005 President George W. Bush decreed the two gifted birds — named Marshmallow and Yam — be sent to Disneyland to live out their days and serve as honorary grand marshals of that year’s Thanksgiving day parade. This would be done for the next five years, the last couple named Courage and Carolina housed in a spacious pen at Big Thunder Ranch. We visited Disneyland a week before Christmas in 2009 and were able to meet the lucky fowl.