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Biden pardoned the Thanksgiving turkeys. Read the strange truth behind the tradition

The two national Thanksgiving turkeys, Chocolate and Chip, are photographed before a pardoning ceremony at the White House on Monday.
Andrew Harnik
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AP
The two national Thanksgiving turkeys, Chocolate and Chip, are photographed before a pardoning ceremony at the White House on Monday.

Updated November 21, 2022 at 1:22 PM ET

Behind the yuk-yuk dad jokes of the now-annual presidential turkey pardon is a very strange, sometimes dark and often misunderstood history, even by presidents.

On Monday, President Biden again "pardoned" two turkeys — named Chocolate and Chip — though they did nothing wrong. They are coming from a grower in North Carolina, staying in a hotel room and even have social media accounts.

Speaking on the White House South Lawn, Biden called the annual event a "wonderful tradition."

"There's a lot to say about it but it's chilly outside so I'm going to keep this short," he said. "Nobody likes it when their turkey gets cold."

It's a tradition presidents have been doing for decades, but why you ask? Good question. It's one your author has been asking for 13 years now.

We got some answers for you, but the bottom line is this event is basically the biggest public-relations stunt of the year for the turkey lobby, it has a head-slapping reason for being coined a "pardon" and the birds were never meant to be spared, they were meant to be eaten.

Yes, there is a turkey lobby

It's not a huge lobbying group, though the National Turkey Federation ranks in the top 5% of outside groups that have given to members of Congress, PACs and the like.

For the 2022 cycle, it has given some $340,000 — three-quarters of which went to Republicans — and has spent more than $3 million on lobbying efforts since 1998, according to a search of the OpenSecrets lobbying database.

Despite the pardoning, the turkey federation's website is literally EatTurkey.org. So the point here is pretty clear.

It's all fun and games until someone loses a wattle.

Two male turkeys from North Carolina named Bread and Butter hang out in their hotel room at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C., ahead of pardoning by President Trump in 2019.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
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AP
Two male turkeys from North Carolina named Bread and Butter hang out in their hotel room at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C., ahead of pardoning by President Trump in 2019.

A confused history

The turkey federation has been giving turkeys to presidents since 1947. But these turkeys were originally meant to be eaten, not pardoned.

The first Thanksgiving turkey on record to receive a reprieve was in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy received a 40-pound turkey with a sign around its neck that read, "GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!"

President John F. Kennedy reaches out to touch a turkey presented to him at the White House from the turkey industry.
Harvey Georges / AP
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AP
President John F. Kennedy reaches out to touch a turkey presented to him at the White House from the turkey industry.

"We'll just let this one grow," Kennedy said.

A Los Angeles Times article from Nov. 20, 1963, about the event the day before was headlined: "Turkey gets presidential pardon."

There has been some confusion about the history of the presidential turkey pardon, sowed by none other than presidents who were doing the pardoning.

"Let me thank again the National Turkey Federation on their Golden Anniversary for donating a Thanksgiving turkey to the White House every year for 50 years," President Bill Clinton said in 1997. "That's right, now this marks the 50th year when we give one more turkey in Washington a second chance."

Funny line, but it's not true.

Big Turkey may have gotten involved in 1947, but, as noted above, the turkeys were a gift to presidents and their family for their consumption.

Clinton then added more explicitly and also incorrectly:

"President Truman was the first president to pardon a turkey."

Also false. The Truman Library disputed this in 2003, writing:

"The Library's staff has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency. Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table."

Even with the record having been set straight — year after year now in your authors columns — former President Trump erred in 2019 as to its origins as well.

"It is said Abraham Lincoln was the first to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey," he said.

Not quite. Lincoln did spare a turkey, but it was for Christmas not Thanksgiving.

About 100 years before Kennedy's inadvertent pardon, an 1865 dispatch from White House reporter Noah Brooks read:

"[A] live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln's son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. ... [Tad's] plea was admitted and the turkey's life spared."

The tradition of sending turkeys to presidents (for their eating) goes back at least 73 years before the industry's involvement.

Harold Vose of Rhode Island, a man known then as the "Poultry King," sent unofficial Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys to the White House from 1873 until his death in 1913, according to the White House Historical Association.

After that, the turkeys came flying from all around the country.

The White House Historical Association notes:

"In 1921, an American Legion post furnished bunting for the crate of a gobbler en route from Mississippi to Washington, while a Harding Girls Club in Chicago outfitted a turkey as a flying ace, complete with goggles. First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925."

So what's happening now isn't even the silliest in this bizarre tradition's history.

An accidental coining of a phrase to deflect from scandal

Kennedy never used the word pardon when referring to his bird.

The first president to do so in referring to letting a turkey go was Ronald Reagan — and it was a joke deflecting from the Iran-Contra scandal.

During the yearly turkey presentation in 1987, ABC News' Sam Donaldson pressed Reagan on whether he would pardon two key players involved in the weapons sale, Oliver North and John Poindexter.

Reagan was already set to let the turkey presented to him go to a petting zoo, as Nixon had previously done. He answered this way:

"If they'd given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him."

After that informal use of the word, the event was formalized by his vice president, George H.W. Bush, in his first year as president.

"[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 in 1989. "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."

And so a (weird) presidential tradition began.

President George H.W. Bush and Shannon Duffy, then 8, of Fairfax, Va., look over a Thanksgiving turkey in 1989. The 50-pound bird is the first to be officially pardoned by a president.
Marcy Nighswander / AP
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AP
President George H.W. Bush and Shannon Duffy, then 8, of Fairfax, Va., look over a Thanksgiving turkey in 1989. The 50-pound bird is the first to be officially pardoned by a president.

Spending out their (limited) days

For years now, turkeys had been spending the rest of its — perhaps limited — days at "Gobbler's Rest" at Virginia Tech University's Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

"Virginia Tech has a long tradition of supporting the turkey industry through research and outreach," Rami Dalloul, a Virginia Tech professor, said in a press release a couple years back. "So it's fitting that the Presidential Turkeys becoming part of the Hokie Nation is a new tradition."

Dalloul, Virginia Tech said, is "a world-renowned poultry immunologist who a few years ago sequenced the turkey genome."

But PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, doesn't believe it's a suitable place for turkey retirement.

In fact, it launched an ad campaign, saying the turkeys are "pardoned in Washington" and "punished at Virginia Tech." They even put out this video about the conditions:

Previous turkeys have gone to Disneyland and the unfortunately named Frying Pan Park in Virginia.

And the turkeys are again getting passed off like a hot side at the Thanksgiving table.

It was announced that these birds will be returning to the Tar Heel State after their pardoning, staying for the foreseeable future 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," according to a local news report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.