Obama follows turkey pardon tradition, but who started it?

The tradition of the Thanksgiving turkey pardon has a long (and awkward) history. But which president started it? Hint: It wasn't Harry Truman.

By , Staff writer

As president, Harry Truman did a lot. The end of World War II and the establishment of NATO come to mind. But one thing he didn’t do is pardon a Thanksgiving turkey.

This time of year, news features about the White House turkey-pardoning tradition often list Truman as its progenitor. There is even a famous photo of President Truman accepting a bird from the National Turkey Federation. He’s petting it, as if to say, “Don’t worry, big fella. All is forgiven.”

The problem is, that photo was taken on Dec. 15, 1947 – and the bird in question probably had a date with some cranberry sauce. The Truman Library has received numerous requests over the years to confirm the story about Truman and Thanksgiving turkey-pardoning, but researchers have found no contemporaneous record that it happened.

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“Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table,” says an account on the library’s website. “In any event, the Library has been unable to determine when the tradition of pardoning the turkey actually began.”

Really, the whole pardoning-the-turkey thing is a public relations mine field for a president. You’re in the Oval Office, musing over decisions of historic impact, and the next thing you know, you’re sharing the dais with a bird that has the IQ of a bar of soap.

Over the years there have been some memorable turkey freak-outs at the annual ceremony. In 1981, the official gift bird got nervous, flapped his wings, and glug-glugged away while President Reagan laughed.

Nixon tried to avoid the ceremony, as did Carter, who handed off turkey honors to Vice President Mondale and first lady Rosslyn.

As to pardoning, the first president to tie the word “pardon” to the turkey’s fate was George H.W. Bush, at his first Thanksgiving as chief executive in 1989. “He will not end up on anyone’s dinner table – not this guy,” said Mr. Bush.

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See also:

Obama pardons ‘Courage,’ the Thanksgiving turkey

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