Presidential turkey pardons, not as long a history as you might think


President Obama will pardon a turkey once again Wednesday at 1 p.m. in a ceremony that has become an annual presidential tradition. But the history of that tradition is actually not as long as one might think.

Nov. 25: Joined by daughters Sasha and Malia, President Barack Obama granted an official pardon to the White House turkey Wednesday. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

President Harry Truman is often cited, incorrectly, as the first president to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey. (Just Google first president to pardon a turkey and see how many wiki Truman answers you get.)

Adding to the confusion, President Bill Clinton claimed on Nov. 26, 1997 at his pardoning ceremony: "President Truman was the first president to pardon a turkey."

But the Truman Library wrote in 2003: "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."

In fact, "Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table," the library wrote.

Slideshow: Free birds - Presidential turkey pardons

It appears that Abraham Lincoln, in a way, was the first to spare a turkey. But it wasn't a Thanksgiving turkey. It was a Christmas turkey his son had taken for a pet.

Clinton in that same 1997 speech: "[T]he tradition actually began 83 years earlier when President Lincoln received a turkey for Christmas holiday. His son, Tad, grew so attached to the turkey that he named him 'Jack,' and President Lincoln had no choice but to give Jack the full run of the White House."

President George W. Bush made reference to the same story in his “pardoning” ceremony in 2001.

Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images

President George W. Bush meets Liberty, the turkey to receive the annual Thanksgiving Presidential Pardon in the Rose Garden of the White House 19 Nov. 2001.

So which president was the first to actually pardon a Thanksgiving turkey?

It appears it was John F. Kennedy in 1963. An NBC News archive search found a Los Angeles Times article dated Nov. 20, 1963 with the headline, "Turkey gets presidential pardon."

And that turkey was a monster. The paper described it as a "55-pound broad white tom."

Despite a sign hanging around the bird's neck that read, "Good eating, Mr. President," Kennedy took a look down at the "frightened, panting bird" and said, "We'll just let this one grow."

A version of this history of turkey pardons – “Beg your (Turkey) pardon” -- was first published on First Read Nov. 25, 2009.

NBC's Donna Mendell contributed to this report.

Discuss this post

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Ask every Republican relative why they support Ryan's plan to eliminate taxes completely on capital gains, dividends, and carried interest?

Why do they want Romney to pay no taxes?

In 1986, Reagan signed the Tax Reform Act which raised taxes on these millionaires. Reagan's bill made it so these taxes were taxed the same as ordinary income.

Reagan knew it was wrong. Anyone who liked Reagan knows it's wrong now.

  • 21 votes
#1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 9:38 AM EST

If we're talking turkey pardons again, it's time to remember the poor little fella's behind her whose luck ran out;

Bonus points to Bible Spice for her legendary "word salad"!

Those were the days... lmao

  • 17 votes
#1.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:03 AM EST

Debbie, nice post.

Even Reagan dumped his trickle-down economics after that first big tax cut he signed. He recognized that it had created deficit and debt, unfair advantages for those who already had more than they could spend and subsequently signed legislation that raised taxes 11 times. He increased capital gains back to 28% because he said that rate should be close to the income tax level paid by the wealthy, that it should be treated as income because it is new income.

It seems the only lesson the GOPers learned from Reagan was the one he dumped by his second year in office--trickle down. It didn't work in 1981, and it has never worked. The wealthy may be business owners and have the power to create jobs but demand drives the job creation and without a vibrant middle class earning good wages, the rich will not (and have not) created jobs because people cannot afford the products made.

  • 13 votes
#1.2 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:06 AM EST

You have to remember capital gains, dividends, and carried interest, don't have any effect on the majority of tax payers.

  • 7 votes
#1.3 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:38 AM EST

Listening to a bit of political chatter, seems a number of republicans are blaming Gov Christie for Romney's losing the election. Do any of these republicans ever stop to consider three big things that cost Mitt the election: 1) Romney was an awful candidate who never stood firm on anything except keeping his tax returns a secret and who kept his plans for the country just as secret. 2) It was the GOP message, and their policies that voters rejected. 3) He picked the "kill medicare", privatize social security and let the poor starve guy as his VP choice. That said, watching and listening to them find a gazillion excuses other than the truth makes for good entertainment.

Mo, true, they don't in terms of paying taxes but they have a huge impact on budget deficits and are huge "gifts" to those who get the reap the benefits.

  • 10 votes
#1.4 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:45 AM EST

Congrats Fisty, you're the only one on topic (sort of) of the first five posts.

  • 6 votes
#1.5 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 11:18 AM EST

President Turkey Pardons Romney & Ryan, Heads off disaster !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • 3 votes
#1.6 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 12:33 PM EST

OMG Feisty! That is hysterical!!!

Happy Thanksgiving all!

  • 7 votes
#1.7 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 12:36 PM EST

One of the first turkeys that were pardoned was Spiro Agnew, pardoned by Tricky Dicky Nixon.

  • 4 votes
#1.8 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 2:15 PM EST

this is a cute story. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Gobble till ya wobble lol! Enjoy your families.

  • 5 votes
#1.9 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 3:28 PM EST

TO: jerryb-1604912 who wrote:

One of the first turkeys that were pardoned was Spiro Agnew, pardoned by Tricky Dicky Nixon.


  • 4 votes
#1.10 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:21 PM EST

Just a group of trolls migrating to the nearest swamp. Feisty, of course, is in the middle of the weed.

  • 1 vote
#1.11 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:22 PM EST

Actually, Agnew was never pardoned by anyone and did his time. Nixon, however, was another matter.

  • 2 votes
#1.12 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 7:02 PM EST

Course the first real turkey granted a pardon was Nixon being pardoned by Ford.

  • 2 votes
#1.13 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 8:20 PM EST

The White House announced the federal government will spend $6 billion over four years for a "sustainable energy future" plan with Asian countries that involves loaning tax dollars to other countries to increase their purchasing power for U.S. technology, services and equipment.

"Recognizing that energy and the environment are among the most pressing issues confronting our region, President Obama, in partnership with Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei and President of the Republic of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, today proposed the U.S.-Asia Pacific Comprehensive Partnership for a Sustainable Energy Future," the White House announced Tuesday as Obama visits Asian Pacific countries.

The initiative comes after the Obama administration has been criticized for spending billions to subsidize U.S.-based green energy companies that went on to declare bankruptcy, including Solyndra, Ener1, A123, Beacon Power and other failed renewable energy ventures.

47 % of Americans living on food stamps. I am so friggin glad obama loves giving away my tax dollars since we have so much money to spare. I do not suppose he would be willing to donate a million of his dollars to asian countries for clean energy. Man, he just never amazes me enough. We are in deep shi* people. He has not even started his second term and he is giving away six billion of our tax dollars. One billion dollars is a 6'x6' pallet stacked 5' high of 100.00 bills, and he is giving away 6 of them, unfriggin real.

    #1.14 - Wed Nov 21, 2012 12:13 PM EST

    I'm not against the death penalty in these types of cases.

    Fry the bird!

      #1.15 - Wed Nov 21, 2012 12:13 PM EST

      What's that white thing with the three turkeys in the Rose Garden?

      • 15 votes
      Reply#2 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 9:48 AM EST

      I think you have identified the turkeys and the white thing is all that is left of the republican party.

      • 17 votes
      #2.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 9:50 AM EST

      That white thing seems to have an unnatural interest in a certain part of Dubbya's anatomy.

      ...and that look on his face!! Priceless. ;)

      • 11 votes
      #2.2 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:00 AM EST

      kaybeetoys, when doesn't Bush have that look on his face?

      • 9 votes
      #2.3 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:26 AM EST

      Presidential Pardon for Palin just in the neck of time, gobble, gobble, gobble !!!!!!!!!!!!

      • 2 votes
      #2.4 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 3:16 PM EST

        #2.5 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:19 PM EST

        Who cares about the turkey? The only turkey here is this story!

        • 1 vote
        Reply#3 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 9:49 AM EST

        The President's going to pardon John McCain?

        Sorry - corny but I couldn't resist :-)

        • 11 votes
        Reply#4 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:10 AM EST

        The guys in white coats are coming for McCain, his rubber room is ready.

        • 11 votes
        #4.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:22 AM EST

        Good one, even if "corny".

        • 8 votes
        #4.2 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:22 AM EST

        Silly as the notion of pardoning turkeys is, it has become a part of our Thanksgiving. It's fun!

        To that, I'll add, that one of the biggest GOPer turkeys, Allen West has conceded that he lost. He's probably wondering what went wrong but to help West out: bat crap crazy is acceptable to people occasionally.

        Happy Thanksgiving!

        • 12 votes
        Reply#5 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:15 AM EST

        He should pardon Patty Hearst!

          Reply#6 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:28 AM EST

          Turkeys are the ugliest fouls on the earth, they are truly FOUL and should be killed anyway! They're even to ugly to eat which is why I prefer baked lizard ankles instead. Never pardon a turkey; any of them. KILL THEM ALL and the whole world will be a better place for it! LIZARD ANKLES IN EVERY POT! TURKEY HATERS UNITE!

          Right on...

            Reply#7 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 11:01 AM EST

            Yet the sage of the founding fathers, Ben Franklin, wanted the Turkey not the Eagle to be our national symbol.

            • 3 votes
            #7.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 11:55 AM EST

            "Yet the sage of the founding fathers, Ben Franklin, wanted the Turkey not the Eagle to be our national symbol"

            That may have been a more appropriate choice. LOL

            • 3 votes
            #7.2 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 2:22 PM EST

            Ben Franklin wanted the WILD turkey as our national symbol. They are quite smart and they can fly, unlike the broad-breasted mutants we eat on Thanksgiving. The eagle is actually a very nasty bird. Nevertheless, it does look better as a symbol than a turkey would. Sorry Ben.

            • 2 votes
            #7.3 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 6:22 PM EST

            Actually, you couldn't be more wrong. Turkeys can be quite docile and friendly - a neighbor had one when I was a kid and she'd sit on the bench between us when we did our homework and fall asleep. Never underestimate the power of kindness and respect.

            • 2 votes
            #7.4 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 7:25 PM EST

            Sue, the eagle was chosen national symbol over the condor because it had nicer feathers. Both are scavengers. I agree with Benjamin's choice however I think he could have done better.

              #7.5 - Wed Nov 21, 2012 11:49 AM EST

              Pardoning a Turkey! A repulsive, mockery to the millions of turkeys killed for humans celebrating "thanks". It is vile, compassionless, and meant as a "funny" joke by people who will go home and eat yet another tortured animal for their own pleasure. We are a selfish lot, and we don't have a clue just how vile we all are when it comes to animals! Mantra of flesh eaters: "Give me the animal flesh, and don't ever tell me about how the animal lived and died, I can't take it, I've seen the pictures and it just to awful!" Yet, being so awful, we still want it to continue; how awful can it really be to us if we don't want to stop the horror? - Paul Hester

              • 1 vote
              Reply#8 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 11:14 AM EST

              Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy your broccoli, bean sprouts, lettuce, carrots, and soy beans.

              And by the way, by eating those you deprive rabbits and other creatures their nourishment only to starve to death, slowly.

              Feel better now?

              • 7 votes
              #8.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 11:20 AM EST

              Also, when you eat broccoli, bean sprouts, lettuce, carrots, and soy beans, remember that hundreds of rodents, lichens, spiders, ladybugs, and other critters were killed by the farmers who grew them, so they could sell more veggies to you animal lovers.

              • 6 votes
              #8.2 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 2:24 PM EST

              TO: Paul-1316066 who wrote:

              "Pardoning a Turkey! A repulsive, mockery to the millions of turkeys killed for humans celebrating "thanks".

              Yep, every year during the month of November we have yet another Turkey-genocide, slaughtered by man for the purpose of celebrating yet another holiday.

              What's worse is, we tend to have another right around December 25th.


              Gobble, gobble!

              • 5 votes
              #8.3 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:30 PM EST

              It is all in fun. Of course some poor souls will get their panties all in a twist over this. Let them make fools of themselves. They need to lighten up.

              • 6 votes
              Reply#9 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 11:57 AM EST

              Seriously ppl, lighten up and pls save me a drumstick. Happy t'anksgiving to all :-)

              • 8 votes
              Reply#10 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 12:23 PM EST

              Think, we should send off Mitt Romney with a pardon to Cayman Island or Switzerland.....................

              ..................he is full of baloney..............but, now, only a bad page of our history.............

              • 1 vote
              Reply#11 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 12:29 PM EST

              The Romney/Ryan ticket was the real turkey this year.

              • 5 votes
              Reply#12 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 12:37 PM EST

              On Janruary 20, 2009 there were Fourteen GOP "Turkeys" met at the Caucus Steakhouse Restaurant in Washington D.C. On this evening the Fourteen GOP "Tea Begger Turkeys." Made there choice to 'conspire' to commit 'treason' against the people of the United States. These "Turkeys" made it clear that they will drive the US Economy off the fiscal cliff at all costs. The biggest "Turkey" of all "Nutty Newt." Admitted that his fellow GOP "Tea Turkeys" that they truely did 'conspire' to destroy the American People. He also made it clear that their main goal was destroy any job creation presented by the President. The Fourteen GOP "Turkeys" gobbled/conspired to not compromise, not to help this President at all, and to take their 'revenge' out on the American People. It is time America to chop the "Poltical Head" off these GOP/RNC "Tea Begger Turkeys."

              • 2 votes
              Reply#13 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 12:46 PM EST

              You're just a stupid socialist. Go to Russia or China.

              I do not believe in redistribution. Neither should you, if you work for your money. However, if you rely on handouts, read theis message from the beginning.

              • 2 votes
              #13.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 2:24 PM EST

              TO: Tibi001 who wrote:

              "You're just a stupid socialist. Go to Russia or China.

              I do not believe in redistribution. Neither should you, if you work for your money..."

              Just for that, no turkey for you!

              If Republicans are working on the next election, you're losing already.

              Gobble gobble!

              • 4 votes
              #13.2 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:34 PM EST

              If there's anything more repulsive than a sore loser, it's a sore winner. What part of THE DEMOCRATS WON do you fail to get, Mr. "Progressive"? Be careful while grave dancing -- sometimes they cave in!

              • 1 vote
              #13.3 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 7:06 PM EST

              Check out the song I co-wrote, "Tasty the Turkey", on this very topic:

              Tasty is a very special bird who uses his intelligence, pluck and patriotic tail to save himself at Thanksgiving by getting a presidential pardon. Take a look at the video and free coloring book at the link above.

                Reply#14 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 2:15 PM EST

                No link, Scott. But looks like it would've been a cute read!

                  #14.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 8:40 PM EST

                  • 1 vote
                  Reply#15 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 2:17 PM EST

                  How many innocent turkeys had to die just to get one saved?

                  • 2 votes
                  Reply#16 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 2:21 PM EST

                  TO: Tibi001 who wrote:

                  "How many innocent turkeys had to die just to get one saved?"

                  Two are pardoned, and 2 are served at the Presidential Thanksgiving Table.

                  • 2 votes
                  #16.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:36 PM EST

                  This is one of the dumbest things I have seen a president do... Kill it and eat...

                    Reply#17 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 3:45 PM EST

                    Maybe Obama should pardon Americans from his bad economic policies.

                    • 3 votes
                    Reply#18 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 4:13 PM EST

                    I was waiting for some RWNJ to spout something negative about Obama. I thank you Common Man for sparing me a disappointment I couldn't bear to live with.
                    Romney would have flip flopped on whether to pardon it... or maybe waited to get his orders from the rulers of the Grand Ole Plutocrat party.

                    I miss you Mittens... please run again in 2016 or maybe go for a congressional seat in 2014. PRETTY PLEASE, I'll help you hide your tax returns or carry duffel bags of cash to the Cayman's for you.

                    • 4 votes
                    #18.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 4:42 PM EST

                    TO: notliborcon who wrote:

                    "...I miss you Mittens... please run again in 2016 or maybe go for a congressional seat in 2014..."

                    Romney ran for Senator, and lost that race too!

                    After one term as Governor of Massachusetts, Romney couldn't get elected ANYWHERE or any position, not even Dog Catcher!

                    • 3 votes
                    #18.2 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:40 PM EST

                    Obama pardoned all of America from George W Bush's disastrous economic policies... or lack thereof.

                    George W. Bush's pardon of his turkey was out of respect for a kindred spirit of identical IQ.

                    • 3 votes
                    #18.3 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 9:41 PM EST

                    Actually, I think Truman did pardon a turkey. I remember reading a story about it when I was in Grade school. It might have been in our "Weekly Reader", but I thought the story was longer than that. That was before JFK, I am getting old!


                    • 1 vote
                    Reply#19 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:51 PM EST

                    Somehow I think that I would've heard before now that the pardonning of a turkey, according to this account, was pretty much one of President Kennedy's last official acts, if he did it on Nov. 20, 1963, as his death came only two days later. Perhaps that event so overshadowed the far larger one that it became obscured by it for a while. I'm pretty sure something about a turkey pardon was in My Weekly Reader at some point, and Bill, as I'm a little younger than you, my time with it was somewhat concurrent with the JFK presidency.

                    • 1 vote
                    #19.1 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 7:13 PM EST

                    Rlquall and Bill... you aged yourselves AND me! My Weekly Reader! I'd forgotten about that and you brought back a very fond memory!

                    Happy Thanksgiving!

                    • 1 vote
                    #19.2 - Tue Nov 20, 2012 8:42 PM EST


                    There will be a lot more than just 4 more turkeys pardoned by President Obama...

                      Reply#20 - Wed Nov 21, 2012 9:05 AM EST

                      I'm glad he didn't pardon the creep that left him the mess to clean up 4 years ago, George Worthless Bush .

                        Reply#21 - Wed Nov 21, 2012 9:23 AM EST

                        I actually forgot what a total dolt Georgie Boy looked like.

                        You would think that his constant "why I don't have a clue" look would be unforgettable.

                        Thanks for the not-so-fond memory nbcnews!

                          Reply#22 - Wed Nov 21, 2012 3:32 PM EST

                          WHAT IS THE TURKEY'S OFFENCE?

                          What's unpardonable is the wanton breeding and slaughter. And not just of turkeys.

                          Is everyone inured to the irony of calling the annual ritual slaughter of tens of millions of innocent creatures "Thanksgiving"?

                            Reply#23 - Wed Nov 21, 2012 6:55 PM EST

                            Sooo, the president takes food away from hungry people and puts two more on welfare FOR LIFE!

                              Reply#24 - Thu Nov 22, 2012 4:31 AM EST

                              The Turkey that should have been pardoned is Mitch McConnell......................Nah

                              • 1 vote
                              Reply#25 - Thu Nov 22, 2012 8:26 AM EST
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