President Barack Obama pardoned his fourth turkey today, in what many believe is a Thanksgiving tradition dating back to 1947, when President Harry Truman, standing outside the White House, was presented with a holiday bird by the National Turkey Federation. But there’s no evidence that Truman did anything different from his successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, who, with his family, consumed all eight birds the NTF presented them.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy became the first president to see the word “pardon” used with reference to a Thanksgiving turkey, but he did not officially spare a bird in a pre-Thanksgiving ceremony in the Rose Garden. Kennedy simply announced that he would not eat the bird, and newspapers reported that the president had “pardoned” the gobbler given to him by the California Turkey Advisory Board. Just days before that year’s Thanksgiving, he was assassinated in Dallas.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word “pardon” in connection with a Thanksgiving turkey, in 1987, in response to media queries about whether he might pardon Lt. Col. Oliver North or any of the other figures involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Reagan joked that if that year’s turkey had not already been destined for a petting farm, “I would have pardoned him.”
In fact, it was President George H.W. Bush who began the tradition, in 1989. “Not this guy,” Bush said when a holiday turkey was presented. “He’s been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”