Free Bird: Thanksgiving Turkey Pardons

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Pardon in the garden

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

The annual Thanksgiving ceremony where the U.S. president pardons a turkey became a tradition more than 20 years ago, when President George H.W. Bush pardoned the National Turkey Federation's annual gift instead of gobbling it up. His successors have followed tradition over the years. (Pictured, President Donald Trump pardons a turkey in 2017.)

But the tradition of giving a turkey to the president goes back much further. As the following photos show, politicians and poultry share a much longer, often bizarre, history.

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Giving the bird

Photo: Abbie Rowe, U.S. National Park Service [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

The National Turkey Federation began giving turkeys to U.S. presidents during Harry S. Truman's presidency, originally as a Christmas gift (this photo was taken Dec. 15, 1947). Truman pardoned 2,044 people during his tenure — No. 3 among all presidents in history — but didn't pardon any turkeys, despite often getting credit for inventing the tradition. All indications are that the Truman family ate their feathered gifts. The first signs of presidential turkey compassion came 16 years later.

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The first turkey 'pardon'

Photo: Robert L. Knudsen [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

In 1963, John F. Kennedy became the first president to publicly let his Thanksgiving turkey off the hook, although he didn't actually use the word "pardon." Kennedy simply announced in the Rose Garden on Nov. 18, 1963, that he didn't plan to eat the turkey, saying "Let's just keep him." But newspapers reported the next day that Kennedy had "pardoned" the bird, a concept that would stay in the American consciousness for decades.

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Is this turkey a crook?

Photo: White House Photographic Office [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

President Richard Nixon accepted a Thanksgiving turkey from members of the National Turkey Federation in this Nov. 18, 1969 photo. Nixon issued a total of 926 presidential pardons to humans during his six-year presidency — including labor leader Jimmy Hoffa and mobster Angelo DeCarlo — but did not pardon this turkey.

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All pardoned out

Photo: White House Photographic Office [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

President Gerald Ford leaned in to inspect his Thanksgiving gift in this 1975 photo, taken outside the White House. Ford had issued a controversial pardon the previous year to former President Nixon — who resigned in 1974 following the Watergate scandal — and would issue another 408 before leaving office. Still, like Nixon, Ford granted no clemency to turkeys.

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Not talking turkey

Photo: White House Photographic Office [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word "pardon" when discussing the fate of his holiday poultry, but it wasn't during any photo-op festivities. While deflecting questions from reporters in 1987 about whether he would pardon U.S. officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan said that if that year's Thanksgiving turkey wasn't already bound for a petting zoo, "I would have pardoned him."

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A bird in hand

Photo: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Seen here granting one of his trademark turkey pardons, President George H.W. Bush began the annual tradition in 1989 with this announcement: "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 been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here." By repeating the act every year of his presidency, Bush secured it as a seasonal U.S. ritual.

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Like feather, like son

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President George W. Bush keeps up his father's tradition in this 2008 photo, pardoning "Pumpkin" the turkey during the annual White House event. Afterward, Pumpkin was flown to Disneyland, where the bird served as an honorary grand marshal in the California theme park's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The younger Bush started this tradition in 2005, replacing the previous practice of sending pardoned turkeys to nearby farms in Virginia.

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Poultry in motion

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Who says turkeys can't fly? First-class passengers settled in next to two animal crates containing presidentially pardoned turkeys "May" and "Flower," as they flew from Washington, D.C., to Orlando on Nov. 20, 2007. Following their ceremony in the nation's capital — the 60th since President Truman first accepted a holiday bird in 1947 — they were flown to Disney World for its Thanksgiving Day Parade before ultimately retiring to Disney's Big Thunder Ranch in California.

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Howdy, pilgrim

Photo: George Sheldon/Shutterstock.com

Pilgrim Mickey Mouse, shown here in a Thanksgiving Day parade in Philadelphia with Minnie, has been known to unveil presidential turkeys at the place they are raised before being pardoned. Most turkeys that get to meet the president are given extra interaction with people before their White House appearance to make sure they kept their composure.

Since 2005, Mickey has also played host to presidential turkeys in Disneyland, where the pardoned birds have lived out their days. But in 2010, the turkeys instead rode in a horse-drawn carriage to Mount Vernon.

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Beg your pardon?

Photo: KTUU/YouTube

When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin visited a poultry farm in November 2008 to pardon a turkey, it was a mostly unremarkable photo-op. Afterward, however, Palin unwittingly helped create a morbidly amusing viral video by giving a three-minute interview to a local TV station, apparently unaware that unpardoned turkeys were being slaughtered in the background. See the clip below, but be warned — even with the goriest parts blurred out, it's still not for the faint of heart:

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Fowl territory

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama issued his second presidential turkey pardon in this Nov. 24, 2010 photo, granting amnesty to "Apple" as daughters Malia and Sasha looked on. Obama seemed more smooth on protocol, holding his hand out and proclaiming with mock drama, "You have my blessing."

If you want to go behind the scenes, check out the White House-produced video below for a turkey's-eye view of the run-up to Obama's inaugural turkey event:

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Drumstick and Wishbone

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

During President Donald Trump's first turkey pardon in 2017, he pardoned "Drumstick" (pictured) and "Wishbone." They later joined "Tater" and "Tot" — who had previously been pardoned by Obama — at Virginia Tech's Gobbler's Rest agricultural facility.

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When turkeys attack

Photo: South Park Studios

Despite the apparent absurdity of politicians pardoning turkeys, it still might not be a bad idea. After all, considering everything else people put turkeys through, we could stand to build up a little goodwill in case they ever rise up against us, à la the genetically engineered turkeys in the "South Park" Thanksgiving special, "Starvin' Marvin." (Watch a clip from the episode here.)