The Real Reason Why The President Pardons A Turkey Every Thanksgiving

The pardoning of a turkey for Thanksgiving by a sitting US President extends back to John F. Kennedy when he chose not to eat a bird donated for the occasion.

By Kari Apted | Published

On Monday, President Biden participated in what’s become an American Thanksgiving tradition. He pardoned two big turkeys from death although the birds did nothing wrong. The birds selected for 2022’s annual turkey pardon were named Chocolate and Chip, delivered from North Carolina, and even given a hotel room and social media accounts.

It feels like U.S. presidents have always participated in the pre-Thanksgiving turkey pardon, but it’s actually only been 59 years since the first turkey received one. After President John F. Kennedy accepted the gift of a live turkey from the National Turkey Federation in 1963, he said, “We’ll just let this one grow.” That prompted a Los Angeles Times headline the next day declaring, “Turkey Gets Presidential Pardon.”

Ironically, the National Turkey Federation has always meant for its presidential gifts to be eaten, not pardoned. The sign on JFK’s turkey proclaimed, in all caps, “GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!” leaving little ambiguity over its purpose. Politicians may be known for stretching the truth, but several U.S. presidents have inadvertently shared untruths about the origin of the annual turkey pardon ceremony.

To be fair, America’s turkey pardon history is filled with a collection of mostly true, yet completely inconsistent tales. For example, JFK gets credit for issuing the first official turkey pardon, but he never actually used those words. Ronald Reagan was the first president to hint at a pardon as he cracked a joke about the Iran-Contra scandal, but the actual verbiage of a presidential turkey pardon wasn’t uttered until George H.W. Bush said it in 1989.

turkey pardon

“[L]et me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy,” Bush said. “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.” Other National Thanksgiving Turkeys have followed a similar fate, being passed on to petting zoos instead of the butcher.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton said that it was the 50th year since President Truman first pardoned a turkey. Six years later, the Truman Library disputed Clinton’s claim, clarifying that there was no proof that Truman had ever issued a turkey pardon. They said former President Truman revealed to reporters that any turkeys he received would indeed end up on the family dinner table.

More recently, former President Donald Trump said in 2019 that Abraham Lincoln was the first to issue a presidential turkey pardon on Thanksgiving. In actuality, Lincoln did spare a turkey’s life in 1865 after his son Tad begged his father to let the bird live. But that turkey was destined for Christmas dinner, not Thanksgiving.

The National Turkey Federation is a small, but powerful, lobbying group, and the annual turkey pardon is its biggest public-relations event each year. According to the OpenSecrets lobbying database, the federation has spent more than $3 million on lobbying since 1998. In 2022, the group gave around $340,000 toward lobbying, with three-fourths of it received by Republicans.

As for Chocolate and Chip, their moment of national fame has ended as they’ve returned to the Tar Heel State to live at North Carolina State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The turkeys will reside in special private quarters at North Carolina State University’s Lake Wheeler Road facilities under the expert care of university poultry specialists and students,” a representative told a local NC news station. This is the first time the NC university has served as the retirement home for the National Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon birds.