Thanksgiving turkey is no lame duck

Each year, the president of the United States pardons one of two turkeys (the designated ceremonial turkey or the alternate in case the designated one dies) at a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House.

Then-President Clinton’s official language for the pardon was: “By virtue of this pardon, [turkey of the year’s name] is on her way not to the dinner table but to [a farm] in [a town].  There she’ll live out her days as safe and comfortable as she can be.”

Historians cannot pinpoint the ceremony’s precise origins. Some believe Abraham Lincoln was the first president to pardon a turkey when his son, Tad, interrupted a Cabinet meeting, and asked his father to pardon his pet turkey, Jack. 

Many say then-President Harry Truman was the first to actually hold a turkey-pardoning ceremony in 1947, but records kept at the Truman library do not document the event. 

By the way, Benjamin Franklin was a turkey enthusiast.  He expressed dissatisfaction that the eagle became America’s national bird. He is reputed to have said: “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” 

Presidents often make jokes at the whimsical pardoning ceremony. In 2001, President Bush said, “I’m not going to speak too long, because our guest of honor looks a little nervous.  Nobody’s told him yet that I’m going to give him a pardon.” 

In 1997, then-President Clinton said, “We can all be grateful that there will be one less turkey in Washington.” 

For years, the pardoned turkeys lived at Kidwell Farm at Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Va.  Last year, the president decided to send spared turkeys to Disneyland.  They served as honorary grand marshals at the Disneyland Thanksgiving Day parade and will spend the remainder of their lives at Disneyland.

The National Turkey Federation traditionally gives the turkey to the White House.  A turkey farmer usually separates several turkey chicks from the farmed turkey flock.  These ‘chosen’ turkeys are hand-fed, and turkey workers spend time with them to ensure they do not become frightened during the ceremony.  Walking among the turkeys, keepers often wear dark overalls to simulate the dark suits officials wear at the White House ceremony. 

Despite the training, several turkeys have become flustered during the presidential pardoning ceremonies.  In 1998, when Clinton was president, a turkey fled the ceremony and White House officials chased him, and returned him to the president to receive his pardon.

Each year, the White House posts a selection of names for turkeys on their website, and the general public votes to name the turkeys.   Last year, the public cast 12,726 votes and chose the names Marshmallow and Yam.

At press time, the White House had not announced this year’s list of names, or the date for the presidential pardon. Turkey’s across America are restless.