Why does the president pardon a turkey? The history behind the Thanksgiving tradition

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Presidents pardoning turkeys
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Presidents pardoning turkeys
President Ronald Reagan, with Peter Hermanson, president of the National Turkey Federation, right, takes part in the annual White House Thanksgiving turkey presentation on Friday, Nov. 19, 1988 at Washington in the Rose Garden. The 40-50 pound gobbler, named Woody, from Iowa, will be sent to a pet farm in Reston, Va. after the event. Other people at the event are unidentified. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 file photo, National Turkey Federation Chairman Jihad Douglas watches at right as President Barack Obama pardons National Thanksgiving Turkey Abe, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Obama's pardoning of a turkey named "Abe" this Thanksgiving has led some Chinese to gloat at the Japanese prime minister's expense. As part of a peculiar annual tradition at the White House, Obama on Wednesday granted amnesty from the dinner table to two turkeys named "Honest" and "Abe" â from the nickname for President Abraham Lincoln. But a translation glitch in Chinese media replaced the character for single-syllable "Abe" with the surname of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (pronounced "Ah-bay"). (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
National Turkey Federation Chairman Jim Rieth, left, and NTF president Stuart Proctor, right, present President Clinton with the National Thanksgiving Day Turkey, "Harry", at ceremonies in the Rose Garden Nov. 24, 1999 in Washington DC. Continuing a tradition begun by President Truman in 1947, Clinton gave a presidential pardon to the turkey. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Bush, standing with Jim Stocam, left, and Tom Fix, of Carthage, Mo., pets Stars the national Thanksgiving turkey during a ceremony pardoning the turkey in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, Nov. 24, 2003. The presidential tradition of pardoning a turkey dates back over 50 years to Harry Truman and has ever since been a custom of the White House executive. As in previous years, this year's turkey will be given to Kidwell Farm at Frying Pan Park, in Herndon, Va. Stocam and Fix raised Stars. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Nixon Giving Annual Pardon to Thanksgiving Turkey (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Charlie, Caroline Kennedy's pet Welsh terrier, inspects a turkey presented to President Kennedy after a traditional Thanksgiving week ceremony at the White House in Washington, Nov. 19, 1963. President Kennedy "pardoned" the bird, sending it back to the farm. Charlie had the run of the grounds during the ceremony. (AP Photo)
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While millions of Americans are picking out their perfect, plastic-wrapped turkeys at supermarkets across the nation, President Obama is protecting one lucky turkey from a roasted fate.

In his last poultry pardoning act as president, Obama will be pardoning a spared turkey in the tradition of presidents past. But why does the Commander in Chief of the United States of America, whose responsibilities most of the year have absolutely nothing to do with interacting with farm animals, pardon a turkey before Thanksgiving each year?

Though President George Washington officially declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1789, the tradition of pardoning a turkey came decades later.

According to the White House Historical Association, the tradition of pardoning dates back to President Abraham Lincoln's clemency to a turkey, a speech given in 1863. "A live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln's son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad's] plea was admitted and the turkey's life spared," White House reporter Noah Brooks wrote in an 1865 dispatch recalling the event. Leave it to Honest Abe's son to continue the family legacy.

In the 1870s, Rhode Island poultry farmer Horace Vose, known as "The Poultry King," sent slaughtered and dressed birds to presidents as gifts. Starting with President Ulysses S. Grant, these Vose turkeys, served at both Thanksgiving and Christmas, became a four-decade tradition, though there's no historical evidence that any turkeys were pardoned following the Lincoln era.

When Vose passed away in 1913, the gifting of turkeys became fair game, and "turkey gifts had become established as a national symbol of good cheer," the White House Historical Association wrote.

These gifted turkeys, however, were all dead and ready for roasting, until 1947, when the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board gifted live turkeys to President Harry Truman. Making a show of it, Truman staged a photo op with his 42-pound Texas tom, in an image that has become iconic with historic presidential pardoning.

The Truman Library, however, notes it has "no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency." That turkey's fate was to end up on a platter for Christmas dinner.

Several years later, President John F. Kennedy was said to have pardoned a live turkey at a 1963 celebration in which the turkey gifted to him had a sign hung around its neck reading, "Good eating, Mr. President." Nothing like a live turkey to put you off drumsticks! "We'll just let this one grow," Kennedy said of his gifted turkey and the LA Timesheadlined that event as a "presidential pardon," though it's unclear if the turkey actually survived beyond the holiday season.

During his term, President Richard Nixon chose to send the birds gifted to him to a local petting zoo rather than the White House kitchen, though, that was not deemed a pardon but rather perhaps an avoidance of guilt about eating an animal with which he had become acquainted. This event was not called Turkeygate, but it's never too late to go back and rename historical events.

In a Nov. 23, 1987 informal exchange with reporters, President Ronald Reagan became the first president in office to use the word "pardon," to distract from political conversation, specifically about the Iran-Contra affair. He referred jokingly to Charlie, a turkey gifted to him by The National Turkey Federation that was sent to a petting zoo, at the aptly named Frying Pan Farm in Fairfax, Virginia, and pardoned, the Guardian reported.

It wasn't until November 17, 1989, that the tradition of turkey pardoning as we now know it took place. In his first Thanksgiving in office, President George H. W. Bush officially pardoned a Thanksgiving bird. "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," Bush told reporters. He also noted that the turkey looked nervous, a comment that his son, George W. Bush would reuse in his own future turkey pardoning, TIME noticed.

Every November since 1989, presidents have continued to pardon American turkeys, though that hasn't stopped them from gobbling down turkey at the White House's annual Thanksgiving dinner. Politics, ey?

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