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9 Presidential Turkey Pardons

Like a weathered recipe card straight from grandma's collection, the U.S. presidential tradition of accepting and pardoning a live turkey for Thanksgiving features a mix of old and newer elements.

The first presidential turkey “pardoning” took place In 1853, when Abraham Lincoln heeded son Tad's wish to spare a pet turkey for Christmas in. The post-World War II years gave rise to the National Turkey Federation's (NTF) annual gifting of living birds to the commander-in-chief in a public pre-holiday ceremony, with increasing numbers of birds escaping the typical Thanksgiving fate as the years passed. The signature bestowment of clemency became all but official when George H.W. Bush pardoned his feathered friend in 1989, and less than two decades later, everyday citizens began partaking in social media campaigns to vote for the winning turkey.

Regardless of the levels of media attention or public involvement, U.S. Presidents have usually taken one of the more light-hearted responsibilities of their job in stride. Here's a look at how several of them rose to the occasion to talk turkey with the American people.

Harry S. Truman

President Truman pardons a turkey for Thanksgiving.
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Harry S. Truman playfully grabbed his 35-pound gobbler in 1950, but the bigger story of his connection to Thanksgiving history took place in 1947. That year, amid a national effort to conserve food for war-torn Europe through a campaign of poultry-free Thursdays, the NTF and the Poultry and Egg National Board fought back by organizing the first of the formal White House presentations that Americans know and love today. Somehow, the 33rd President's role in the occasion was inflated into a narrative that he was the first to free his bird from the chopping block until the Truman Library stepped in to squash the myth in 2003.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Eisenhower holds a turkey while pardoning it during Thanksgiving.
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The 1954 White House ceremony went off without a hitch for Dwight D. Eisenhower, who persuaded his 43-pound turkey to eat cranberries out of his hand. It was also a big day for the attending members of the National Pretzel Bakers Institute, who earned a publicity boost by gifting the President a "154-year-old Pennsylvania Dutch military-dress hatbox" filled with their product, along with a recipe for pretzel-based turkey stuffing.

Richard Nixon

President Nixon smiles at a turkey.
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Having accepted the turkey on behalf of an ailing Dwight D. Eisenhower as Vice President in 1955, a smiling Richard Nixon was already familiar with proceedings toward the close of his first year as commander-in-chief in 1969. But while a turkey once was allegedly nailed to the table under his watch, Thanksgiving at the White House was more closely associated with First Lady Pat Nixon during that era. She became the inaugural First Lady to deliver the traditional Thanksgiving proclamation in 1969, and by 1971, she had taken over the job of welcoming the turkey for the official Rose Garden event.

John F. Kennedy

President Kennedy smiles over a turkey for the annual pardoning ceremony.
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Another milestone moment in presidential-turkey relations took place in 1963 when John F. Kennedy took pity on the oversized bird with the "Good Eating, Mr. President" sign around his neck and said, "We'll just let this one grow." This inspired a headline of "Turkey Gets Presidential Pardon" in the Los Angeles Times, the first such mention of the “p” word — never actually uttered by Kennedy — in relation to this annual event.

Gerald Ford

President Ford inspects a live turkey on a table outside of The White House.
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The end of Gerald Ford's first full year in office was marked by the momentous occasion in which the President, the turkey, and its handler all hailed from the same state: Michigan. The NTF provided other useful information in a release for the 1975 ceremony, including its estimate of a 6% drop in turkey production for the year and the reassuring news that, although an increase of 10 to 15 cents per pound could be expected at the checkout counter, their birds remained the "best meat buy" for consumers.

Ronald Reagan

A big turkey spreads his wings in front of President Regan.
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Ronald Reagan made his mark as the first President to use the term "pardon" when referencing his sparing of Charlie, the White House turkey, in 1987. The moment came when Sam Donaldson of ABC News peppered POTUS with questions about whether he planned to pardon Oliver North and John Poindexter, two prominent figures of the controversial Iran-Contra affair. Reagan declined to answer but laughingly offered, "If they'd given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him."

Bill Clinton

President Bill Clinton stands in front of a turkey ready for pardoning.
Credit: JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/ AFP via Getty Images

Although he was perhaps most responsible for perpetuating the myth that the turkey pardoning originated with Truman, Bill Clinton was a seasoned pro at handling his national Thanksgiving duties by his sixth year in office. He was even unruffled when 45-pound Jerry attempted to flee during the 1998 ceremony, calling him "the most adventurous turkey we've had." Clinton went on to note the importance of giving even in a time of prosperity, but couldn't resist a quip of his own with the news that Jerry was heading to a petting zoo in Virginia "to live out the remainder of his years surrounded by friends, not peas and sweet potatoes."

George W. Bush

A turkey receives a pet from President George W. Bush.
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While the event was colored by the recent tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush managed to keep the tone light-hearted for his first official turkey pardoning in 2001. After announcing that he would keep his remarks brief because the fowl of honor, Liberty, looked "a little nervous," he drew laughs for revealing that the backup, Freedom, was being held in a "secure and undisclosed location." Bush also encouraged the three dozen schoolchildren in attendance to ignore Liberty's feisty behavior and come pet the 55-pound turkey, saying, "Looks mean, but it's a sweet bird."

Barack Obama

President Obama pets a turkey in front of daughter Sasha.
Credit: Win McNamee via Getty Images

Barack Obama seemingly relished the absurdity of this now entrenched White House tradition more than any of his predecessors. Calling it "one of the most important duties that I carry out as President," he announced that Apple (pictured) and the alternate, Cider, would live out their days at the historic estate of Mount Vernon, adding that he was thrilled to "stop at least one shellacking" following the Democrats' heavy losses in the 2010 midterm elections. The one-liners would become standard fare for Obama's annual emceeing, although his teenage daughters, Malia and Sasha, were clearly tired of the dad jokes by 2014.

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