Biden will soon pardon 2 turkeys. Here’s the strange truth behind the tradition

The two national Thanksgiving turkeys, Peanut Butter and Jelly, were photographed ahead of a pardon ceremony in the White House Rose Garden last year.

The two national Thanksgiving turkeys, Peanut Butter and Jelly, were photographed ahead of a pardon ceremony in the White House Rose Garden last year.

Susan Walsh/AP

Behind the yuk-yuk father jokes of the now-annual presidential turkey pardon lies a very strange, sometimes dark, and often misunderstood story, even by presidents.

On Monday, President Biden will again “pardon” two turkeys — even though they did nothing wrong. They come from a grower in North Carolina, live in a hotel room, and even have social media accounts.

But why are they doing this, you ask? Good question. It’s a question your author has been asking for 13 years.

We’ve got some answers for you, but the bottom line is this event is basically the biggest PR stunt of the year for the Turkey lobby, it has a head-banging reason to be coined “sorry” and the birds were never meant to be around to be spared should they be eaten.

Yes, there is a turkey lobby

It’s not a big lobby group, although the National Turkey Federation is in the top 5% of outside groups that have donated to members of Congress, PACs and the like.

It has committed about $340,000 for the 2022 cycle — three-quarters of which went to Republicans — and has spent more than $3 million on lobbying since 1998, according to a search of the OpenSecrets lobbying database.

Despite the pardon, the Turkish FA’s website is verbatim EatTurkey.org. So the point here is pretty clear.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses a wattle.

Two male North Carolina turkeys named Bread and Butter hang out in their hotel room at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, DC before being pardoned by President Trump in 2019.

Two male North Carolina turkeys named Bread and Butter hang out in their hotel room at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, DC before being pardoned by President Trump in 2019.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

A confused story

The Turkey Union has given turkeys to presidents since 1947. But these turkeys were original should be eatennot pardoned.

The first Thanksgiving turkey on record to receive a reprieve was in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy received a 40-pound turkey with a sign around its neck that read, “GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!”

President John F. Kennedy touches a turkey presented to him at the White House by the turkey industry.

President John F. Kennedy touches a turkey presented to him at the White House by the turkey industry.

Harvey Georges/AP

“We’re just letting this one grow,” Kennedy said.

A Los Angeles Times Article dated 11/20/1963 about the event of the previous day was headlined: “Turkey gets presidential pardon.”

There has been some confusion over the history of the presidential pardon for turkeys, seeded by none other than the presidents who administered the pardon.

“Let me once again thank the National Turkey Federation on its golden anniversary for donating a Thanksgiving turkey to the White House every year for the past 50 years,” President Bill Clinton said in 1997. “That’s right, now this is the 50th year . year we donate one more turkey to Washington for a second chance.”

Funny line, but it’s not true.

Big Turkey may have gotten involved in 1947, but, as noted above, the turkeys were a gift to presidents and their families for consumption.

Clinton then added, more explicitly and also incorrectly:

“President Truman was the first President to pardon a turkey.”

Also wrong. The Truman Library denied this in 2003, writing:

“Library staff have found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings that relate to Truman pardoning a turkey given to him in 1947 or at any other time during his presidency. Truman would sometimes tell reporters that the turkeys he received were for the family table.”

Even after the record has been corrected — year after year now in your writers’ columns — former President Trump also got it wrong about his origins in 2019.

“They say Abraham Lincoln was the first to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey,” he said.

Not quite. Lincoln spared a turkey but it was for Christmas not Thanksgiving.

Roughly 100 years before Kennedy’s accidental pardon, an 1865 cable from White House reporter Noah Brooks read:

“[A] Live turkey had been brought home for Christmas dinner, however [Lincoln’s son Tad] intervened for his life. … [Tad’s] Appeal allowed and the turkey’s life spared.”

The tradition of sending presidents turkeys (to eat) dates back at least 73 years before industry involvement.

Harold Vose of Rhode Island, a man then known as the “Poultry King,” sent unofficial Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys to the White House from 1873 until his death in 1913, according to the White House Historical Association.

After that, the turkeys came flying in from all over the country.

The White House Historical Association states:

“In 1921, an American Legion post supplied flags for a Gobbler’s box en route from Mississippi to Washington, while a Harding Girls Club in Chicago outfitted a turkey as a flying ace, complete with goggles. First Lady Grace Coolidge adopted a turkey to a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925.”

So what’s happening now isn’t even the silliest thing in the history of this bizarre tradition.

A random coinage of a phrase to distract from the scandal

Kennedy never used the word sorry when referring to his bird.

The first president to refer to letting a turkey go was Ronald Reagan — and it was a joke that distracted from the Iran-Contra scandal.

During the annual turkey presentation in 1987, Sam Donaldson of ABC News urged Reagan if he would pardon two key figures involved in the arms sale, Oliver North and John Poindexter.

Reagan was already willing to let the turkey presented to him go to a petting zoo, as Nixon had previously done. He replied like this:

“If you had given me a different answer about Charlie and his future, I would have forgiven it him.”

After this informal use of the word, the event was formalized by his Vice President, George HW Bush, in his first year as President.

“[L]”I can assure you and that fine turkey that it will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy,” Bush said in 1989 days at a children’s farm not far from here.”

And so began a (strange) presidential tradition.

President George HW Bush and Shannon Duffy, then 8, of Fairfax, Virginia, look over a Thanksgiving turkey in 1989.  The 50-pound bird is the first to be formally pardoned by a president.

President George HW Bush and Shannon Duffy, then 8, of Fairfax, Virginia, look over a Thanksgiving turkey in 1989. The 50-pound bird is the first to be formally pardoned by a president.

Marcy Nightwalker/AP

Spend your (limited) days

For years, turkeys have been spending the rest of their — perhaps limited — days at “Gobbler’s Rest” at Virginia Tech University’s Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

“Virginia Tech has a long history of supporting the turkey industry through research and outreach,” Virginia Tech professor Rami Dalloul said in a press release a few years ago. “So it’s fitting that it’s a new tradition for the Presidential Turkeys to become part of the Hokie Nation.”

Dalloul, according to Virginia Tech, is “a world-renowned poultry immunologist who sequenced the turkey genome a few years ago.”

But PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, doesn’t think it’s a suitable place for turkeys to retire.

In fact, it launched an advertising campaign saying the turkeys were “pardoned in Washington” and “punished at Virginia Tech.” They even posted this video about the conditions:

Earlier turkeys went to Disneyland and the unfortunate Frying Pan Park in Virginia.

And the turkeys are being passed out like a hot side at the Thanksgiving table again.

It was announced this week that these birds will be returning to Tar Heel State after being pardoned and will remain at North Carolina State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for the foreseeable future.

“The turkeys will live in dedicated private quarters at North Carolina State University’s Lake Wheeler Road facilities under the expert care of poultry specialists and university students,” according to a local news report.

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