The History of the White House Turkey
The presidential pardoning of a live domestic turkey is a 20th century tradition that did not begin until after the end of World War Two. In fact, a slightly different tradition started in 1947, when Harry S. Truman received a live turkey several days before Thanksgiving. That turkey was cooked and eaten, as were the rest of the plump birds that our 33rd president received during his time as President of the United States. The next President, Dwight D. Eisenhower also received a free turkey right before the popular American feast day, and like his predecessor, the feathered creature was the centerpiece on the Thanksgiving dinner table.
On November 19th, 1963, the first turkey was spared by President John F. Kennedy. Tragically, Kennedy was shot and killed three days later, but the tradition of sparing a turkey destined for the Thanksgiving table continued, when President Nixon dispatched several of the big birds to the safety of a nearby farm.
The Turkey Pardon Begins
Next, the story of the turkey pardon jumps forward to the year 1987, when Ronald Reagan occupied the White House. At this time, he was caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal and so he had to answer questions from the press, as to whether he might pardon Lt. Colonel Oliver North for his role in the Contra affair. Somehow these questions from the inquisitive press were deflected by a reference that the President might pardon the Thanksgiving turkey, who was named Charlie. Reagan did pardon Charlie, the Thanksgiving turkey, but took no action on Lt. Col. North, because his trial did not begin until after Reagan had left office.
Reagan did not pardon any more turkeys, but two years later, George H.W. Bush made the Thanksgiving turkey pardon official, when he granted one turkey, his life. Since then every president has pardoned a turkey at Thanksgiving.
Obama Will Pardon A Turkey On Thursday
Nowadays, the process of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey has grown rather complicated. It all begins a year before, when the turkeys are born. The first selection takes place on the farm of the current chairperson of the National Turkey Federation. Typically, 20 turkeys are chosen. Next, these birds are exposed to loud noises and bright lights, which are a simulation of the press exposure that the birds will receive if they make the final selection. As Turkey Day approaches the two best candidates are chosen. One will actually be pardoned, while the second bird serves as an alternative. A name for the pardoned turkey is chosen by the White House and sometime in Thanksgiving the two lucky birds are picked up by Air Force One and flown to the White House. After the ceremony the two turkeys are retired to a petting zoo or friendly farm.
Thanksgiving Storytelling Time
I once witnessed a very, strange event at dusk on Thanksgiving Eve. It occurred in southern Maine, somewhere back in the late 90s, when I was working as a Christmas season packer at L.L. Beans in Freeport. While driving home from a busy day of preparing out-of-state orders for shipping, I came across a sight of two large birds perched in a tree next to a heavily-used rural road. I slowed down and upon closer examination, I came to the conclusion that they were domestic turkeys. Obviously, they had escaped their big feast day, but somehow I can’t see how they would have survived very long in the wild without becoming dinner for a hungry lynx, fox or bobcat.
Several months later, I began a short story based on this event, but as of present the story remains unfinished. In the story, a guy driving home from work has the same experience, but when he gets home, his wife doesn’t believe him and accuses him of “falling off the wagon”. From there things between the couple go downhill fast. In real life, I lived alone at the time, so nothing like that ever happened. Maybe it’s time to complete the story.