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This Week in Freudenfreude: Gobble, Gobble

In view of the holiday, we thought we'd write a little bit about one of the more pleasant American political traditions, namely the now-annual pardoning of the White House turkey(s).

The presentation of turkeys to the sitting president dates back quite a long time—long, long before the pardons began to be issued. It is known that George Washington was gifted with turkeys at least a few times, and so too was Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln, too, which makes sense, since he's the one who declared Thanksgiving to be an official federal holiday. For 40 years, from 1873 to 1913, a Rhode Island turkey farmer named Horace Vose made sure to send a couple of birds to the White House every year. Pardons were not an option, however, as Vose's turkeys arrived already dressed and prepared for cooking.

For a few decades after Vose died, the gifting of turkeys to presidents was intermittent, and was handled by... whatever person took the initiative. It wasn't until 1947 that the presentation of presidential turkeys was regularized, with the National Poultry and Egg Board taking up the responsibility. This was not entirely a beneficent gesture. In fact, it really wasn't beneficent at all. Inasmuch as grain was needed for diplomatic purposes, Truman tried to persuade Americans to forgo all meat on Tuesdays ("Meatless Tuesdays") and to skip poultry on Thursdays ("Poultryless Thursdays"). Since animals eat grain in large amounts, this was meant to ease demand. The nation's meat and poultry producers were none too keen on Truman's plan, and they saw an opportunity to do a little lobbying against it, given that Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday. So, they arranged for a high-profile turkey gifting, and then made sure that reporters asked the President how he enjoyed his Thanksgiving turkey. Needless to say, if the president was not observing "Poultryless Thursdays," it encouraged the rest of the American public to ignore the restrictions, as well.

And so, since 1947, every sitting president has received at least one turkey, and usually two, from the National Poultry and Egg Board. As to the pardons, that custom took much longer to take hold. There are claims that Abraham Lincoln issued the first one, but this appears to be due to his liberal issuance of pardons for humans; there's no evidence he ever spared a turkey. The first known "pardon" came from John F. Kennedy, though he avoided using that particular word. There were at least a few turkeys spared by Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, while Rosalynn Carter saw to it that all the turkeys during her husband's presidency were re-routed to petting zoos.

It was actually George H.W. Bush who made the pardons stick, and who actually used the word "pardon." In 1989, animal rights activists protested outside the annual turkey presentation. While they were in earshot, Bush declared: "But 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—and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here." Since that time, no presidential turkey has ended up on the White House dinner table.

These days, much care and attention is put into selecting just the right turkeys for the ceremony. The breeder starts with between 50 and 80 birds, who are trained to tolerate flash photography, sudden/loud noises, and crowds. That flock is narrowed to roughly 10, and from those 10 the two best-habituated are chosen for the presentation ceremony. The names are chosen via a write-in contest for children, and the retired turkeys are sent to a destination chosen by the president and first lady. George W. Bush preferred to send them to Disney parks, while Barack Obama favored historic residences in Virginia, including Mount Vernon. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have, on advice from the National Poultry and Egg Board, sent their turkeys to various academic institutions. This allows for a considerably longer lifespan. And in case you are wondering, this year's turkeys, Liberty and Bell, are headed to the University of Minnesota.

There was a time when presidential politics was full of civil, non-partisan traditions that allowed a chief executive to remind everyone that he is president of all Americans. These days, even benign things like the egg roll and the turkey pardons have become politicized (for example, many right-wingers are circulating a fake video that makes it look like Biden skipped out on the ceremony this year). We certainly hope the day comes that the intensity of partisanship is dialed down, and everyone can enjoy the more pleasant trappings of American political traditions.

And beyond that, allow us to take this opportunity to express our appreciation for all the folks who make this site possible, including the programmers and copy editors who help us out, and the readers who make it possible. Thanks to all, and have a good weekend! (Z)

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