By Adam Sims
It’s Thanksgiving, a time of year when you gather in front of your family and eat turkey in harmony, unless politics comes to the table. Meanwhile, the turkeys aren’t so lucky. Over 46 million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving, a statistic few turkeys can gobble up. Unless the president has a say.
You’ve probably heard of presidents pardoning turkeys. Regardless of whatever you think about the leader of the free world, it’s always cute to see them pardon a turkey from being on someone’s plate. But why do they do this? Is it just a funny little event, or does it have a deeper meaning?
The origin of the turkey pardoning is a bit muddy, and there are many presidents who have been credited with pardoning turkeys. President Abraham Lincoln’s son, Tad, allegedly spared a turkey during Thanksgiving. Others say the pardoning originated from President Harry S. Truman, but no records can back this claim up.
The first documented pardon was by JFK. After receiving a turkey, Kennedy pardoned the bird by saying, “Let’s keep him going,” and said the turkey should keep growing. However, the word “pardon” was never used.
There were a few other turkey dismissals as well. The first mention of the word “pardon” in the turkey charade was from President Ronald Reagan, who pardoned a turkey who was a little camera shy, as seen on the featured image at the top of this post. However, the turkey was being sent to a petting zoo, so it was never going to be eaten to begin with. In fact, the reason Reagan pardoned the turkey was because he was trying to deflect a question about the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved weapons being secretly sold to Iran. It wasn’t until the next presidency where President George H.W. Bush made the turkey pardon an official event, and it’s been going on since then.
Trump pardoned turkeys Drumstick and Wishbone on Nov. 21. The New York Times described the event as a reprieve and something the president could control:
“For about eight minutes, Mr. Trump seemed to forget about Russia-tinged investigations, about congressional gear-grinding, about college basketball players (or the relatives of college basketball players) showing insufficient gratitude for his efforts.
He marveled at the size of Drumstick (‘Thirty-six pounds — that’s a big bird’), admired the animal’s appearance (‘beautiful turkey’), praised the spot where the turkey would settle (‘Gobbler’s Rest, beautiful place’) and the university that houses it (‘Virginia Tech, tremendous school’)…”
Still, Reagan’s turkey pardons were perhaps the most interesting. Presidents, and politicians in general, are masters at deflecting tough questions the press throws at them. The way Reagan managed to turn a question about a scandal into what would become a White House tradition says quite a lot. His question-dodging managed to give birth to a fun little tradition that allows the press to create a fluff piece on the president as he saves the turkeys from certain death. Or does he?
If you pictured these turkeys spending their time after being pardoned as frolicking through a field, you’re sadly wrong. Many of these turkeys were already fattened up unnaturally, and it took a toll on their bodies.
Is there any point to the turkey pardoning? That’s for you to decide.