That, of course, was impossible. More likely what was giving the turkey fits was the small throng of low-level officials and spectators and newsmen---naturally, newsmen---that hovered around it. Upon receiving a signal, the bird’s handler lifted it up and placed it on a small stand near the White House lawn.
A minute or so later, the man who resided in that house came out.
There was nothing new in the President of the United States receiving the gift of a turkey for Thanksgiving. The gesture had started many, many years before, first by private citizens, then by civic organizations and commercial interests getting in on the act.
And if it was a slow news day---no wars or fires or floods going on---then a report of the event was good for a few column inches in the papers. It was the kind of press Presidents like. Some light-hearted remarks about cooking or carving or eating the bird. Maybe some not-so-light-hearted jabs at the opposition party, which is easy to do when talking about turkeys. And the public would get to see that the President and his family were “just folks”, like the rest of us.
However, this particular Thanksgiving occasion would be different.
The President approached the stand and inspected the turkey, still ruffling its wings and squawking anxiously. The Commander-in-Chief pronounced it to be a fine specimen and thanked the party responsible for donating it to the First Family’s dinner table.
Yet, as hearty and, no doubt, as tasty as this turkey would be, it would not wind up in an oven in the White House kitchen, declared the President. Instead, he announced that the bird had “been granted a Presidential pardon.”
Thus began a tradition.
Of course, you all know about the annual Presidential Pardon of the White House Turkey. It’s grown into a more formalised event since the day when it was started by the first Chief Executive to do so. It makes the evening news on television. There’s footage of it on YouTube.
There are two birds now, and we’re told their names and their weights. The idea of two turkeys was intended as a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too measure. One gobbler would get the pardon; the other would get the axe. But PR-savvy Presidents who didn’t want to piss off the animal-rights groups soon resorted to pardoning both turkeys.
But I wonder how many of you could tell me which President started the tradition? The man who came out and, for the first time, declared that the White House turkey would receive a Presidential pardon.
That is, can you do it without Googling for the correct answer? Oh, come on . . . it’s not like I’m expecting you to pick the right one out of forty-three guys from blind luck. Especially at this time of the year. Local news programmes and talk shows, not to mention the Food Network, love to toss out this fact. You’ll probably hear one of the announcers mention it to-day while you’re watching football .
On the other hand, nearly all of them will get it wrong. It’s what separates a "factoid" from a fact.
So go ahead and take your best shot. If you want to discuss it amongst yourselves, I’ll wait.
Got your answer? O.K., let’s see how you did.
Some of you may have thought of Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe is a pretty good answer for a lot of Presidential firsts. As a matter of fact, if you’ve been reading my Deck Log long enough to remember my first Thanksgiving entry, you’ll recall that it was Lincoln who established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
If you said Lincoln, a lot of people agree with you.
As the story goes, in 1863, President Lincoln received a turkey as a holiday gift from one of his supporters. The President’s ten-year-old son, Tad, grew attached to the bird and adopted it as a pet. He named it “Jack” and gave it run of the White House. The boy was blissfully ignorant of the fate intended for the gobbler until the day before the feast, when one of the cooks carried it off to meet its date with the chopping block.
Horrified, Tad burst in on Lincoln in the middle of a Cabinet meeting and tearfully begged him to spare the animal. The tender-hearted father acquiesced and Jack lived out his natural lifespan as the boy’s pet.
There you have it. Case closed, right? Well, not so fast.
There is a question of whether the story is true or apocryphal. I tend to believe it really happened. White House correspondent Noah Brooks, of The Sacramento Union, reported the events in a dispatch a year later. But the validity of the tale is not the issue.
First, Lincoln did not issue a pardon for the bird. He simply scratched out a note to the cook, telling him to spare Jack and find something else for the holiday dinner.
Eh, what’s that?
“You’re splitting hairs, commander. The note Lincoln wrote, ordering the turkey not to be killed, was essentially a pardon.”
Well, maybe so, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter because I forgot to mention---Lincoln received the turkey as a gift for Christmas, not Thanksgiving, which had come and gone by then. Jack was slated to grace the First Family’s Christmas dinner.
And, in any event, it did not start a tradition of sparing turkeys from the holiday feast.
As I noted, the practise of donating a turkey to the White House was not an uncommon one, even back then. But it became a regular thing during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant when Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose began sending the finest of his well-stuffed birds to Grant. Vose continued to do so with each of Grant’s successors.
“Poultry King” Vose selected the Presidential bird with great care. They never weighed less than thirty pounds and sometimes topped the scales at fifty. And they were guaranteed “good eatin’”. Vose’s annual turkey donation became an anticipated event for those occupying the Oval Office and his farm enjoyed widespread publicity because of it.
The only parties that didn’t benefit from the annual gesture were the turkeys, which wound up on a silver platter in the White House dining room.
Horace Vose’s yearly offerings continued for forty years, until he died in 1913. But, by then, the Thanksgiving turkey donation had become established as a national symbol of good cheer, so there were plenty of civic groups to pick up the slack. It also became something of a spectacle, a mixture of patriotism and showmanship. In 1921, President Warren G. Harding received a Thanksgiving turkey supplied by the Girls’ Club in Chicago. The gobbler was bedecked as a flying ace, complete with helmet and goggles. And to make sure the bird travelled in style, its crate was decorated in red, white, and blue bunting provided by an American Legion post.
In 1925, First Lady Grace Coolidge did the honours, accepting a Thanksgiving turkey from a troop of Girl Scouts from the President’s home state of Vermont.
Some of these birds may have escaped the oven---if so, no particular note was made of it---but most of them ended up satisfying the stomachs of the President, his family, and guests on Turkey Day.
Things didn’t change much during the Hoover and Roosevelt years. The turkeys arrived and the turkeys were eaten.
And that brings us to President Harry S. Truman.
If you cheated and ran the question through a search engine, Harry Truman probably popped up in most of your hits. And to be sure, Truman did have a lasting effect on how the annual Thanksgiving turkeys were donated to the White House.
And, wouldn’t you know, the reason was political.
In 1947, President Truman established a new foreign-aid task force, the Citizens Food Committee. The committee’s goal: to find some way of conserving one hundred million bushels of domestic grain for redistribution in war-ravaged Europe, as part of the Marshall Plan. The committee determined that the most efficient way of doing this was to reduce the national consumption of meat and eggs. It proposed a campaign of encouraging Americans to observe “Meatless Tuesday”, “Poultryless Thursday”, and a somewhat vague “Wasteless Everyday”.
Dutifully, the President made a radio address in that October, asking families to prepare their Tuesday meals without meat and their Thursday meals without poultry or eggs. Just as, Truman assured, would be done at the White House.
It was Poultryless Thursday that caused all the trouble. Not too surprising, given that Truman made his radio address seven weeks before Thanksgiving, which of course always falls on Thursday.
The first salvo of protest came from an irate chicken farmer, who sent a crate full of live hens to the White House. The crate bore a sign: “Hens for Harry”.
But it was the National Turkey Federation, a consortium of poultry producers, which left an enduring mark. It sent a forty-seven-pound turkey to President Truman just before the Christmas of 1947. The public had shown a resentful backlash to the Citizens Food Committee’s recommendations, and Truman saw this as a chance to rehabilitate his popularity. He graciously accepted the National Turkey Federation’s donation in a Rose Garden ceremony, with plenty of press photographers on hand.
It’s this photo op that many confuse with the first Presidential turkey-pardoning. But none of the reports of the event, nor any of Truman’s personal records, indicate that anything happened to the gobbler other than providing the main course for the Trumans’ holiday table.
And, as in the case of Lincoln, it was not a Thanksgiving turkey, but one given for Christmas.
For the next year’s Yule, the NTF provided Truman with two turkeys. It pretty much sealed the fates of the Presidential gobblers when Truman remarked that he would take the birds to his home in Independence, Missouri, where they would “come in handy” for Christmas dinner. His twenty-five relatives, the President explained, “require a lot of food.”
So the tradition of the Presidential Pardon of the White House Turkey did not begin with Truman, either. What did start with Truman was the National Turkey Federation’s involvement. Realising that the turkey was more symbolic of Thanksgiving, the Federation adjusted the timing of its annual turkey delivery to mid-November. And it has remained the official source of the Presidential turkeys ever since.
So let’s keep going.
President Eisenhower succeeded Truman and got his birds from the Federation. Ate ‘em.
The turkeys John F. Kennedy received in the first two Thanksgiving seasons of his presidency wound up on the White House dinner table. The 1963 bird was luckier.
The poultry industry pulled out all the stops that year and presented President Kennedy with a fifty-five-pound broad white tom. The monster fowl sat on a pedestal, trembling. Despite the sign saying “Good eating, Mr. President!”, JFK took one look at the frightened bird and said, “We’ll just let this one grow.”
But no announcement of a pardon, even in jest. After the ceremony, the turkey was quietly returned to the Federation officials, who placed it on a farm for breeding.
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, wasn’t so easily swayed. A rancher by avocation, he was more sanguine about the final fate of livestock.
Johnson won the 1964 election handily, gaining the presidency in his own right. “I hadn’t been quite sure what I was going to eat Thanksgiving,” said LBJ of that year’s turkey donation, “but I’m glad I can eat turkey instead of crow.”
Richard Nixon may have been the first Chief Executive to not make a meal out of any of the turkeys provided to the White House. But he never announced pardons for any of them, either.
Each Thanksgiving during his time in office, President Nixon accepted the bird with the now-customary formalities, made a few noncommittal comments, and posed for the press. After everybody went home, Presidential aides would send the gobbler to a petting zoo near Washington.
Presidents Ford and Carter followed suit. And that brings us to Ronald Reagan.
“Eat him,” the Gipper replied, straightforwardly.
Now, he was the first President to use the word “pardon” in connexion with a turkey. That was six years later. By then, the popular Reagan was enmeshed in the unfamiliar territory of a scandal---the Iran-Contra affair---and the media took advantage of the occasion to ask him questions that he didn’t want to answer.
Reagan’s former national security advisor, Vice Admiral John Poindexter, and his aide, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, had both been indicted as Iran-Contra conspirators. When reporters asked the President if he intended to pardon the two men, he dodged the question by pointing out that the NTF-donated turkey was destined for a petting farm.
“If not, I’d have pardoned him," quipped Reagan, indicating the turkey.
So once again, we get close to determining the first President to pardon the Thanksgiving turkey, but no cigar. The Gipper simply joked that he would have pardoned the bird, but it wasn't necessary.
I can guess what some of you are thinking . . . .
“Commander, you’ve taken us from Lincoln of the 1860’s to Reagan of the 1980’s, and you still haven’t identified the first President to issue a pardon to the Thanksgiving turkey. It’s been such a long-standing tradition, you must have missed somebody.”
Well, no. I haven’t.
You see, this traditional act, which everybody thinks has gone on forever, didn't occur for the first time until the autumn of 1989.
That was the first holiday season in the presidency of George H. W. Bush.
On 14 November 1989, the first President Bush attended the usual ceremony on the White House lawn and accepted the yearly contribution. Present were the usual assembly of aides, NTF officials, reporters, and photographers. A more distant group of spectators probably didn’t escape Bush’s notice, though. A troupe of sign-carrying animal-rights activists was picketing in front of the Executive Mansion. The President was already in hot water with the pro-animal people for his hobby of hunting quail.
That may have been what led Bush to make a more committed choice of words when asked about the future of the plump fowl presented to him.
“Let me assure you---and this fine tom turkey---he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table,” declared the President. “Not this guy. He’s been granted a Presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”
The film footage played that day on local news broadcasts all over the country. Sometimes all it takes is a creative turn of a phrase to captivate the public’s interest.
For his next three years in office, George H. W. Bush proclaimed a Presidential pardon for each of the White House Thanksgiving turkeys, thereby cementing the custom---one that has been followed by all of his successors.
But it’s not an old American tradition, as such things are usually measured. In fact, if you’re reading this, then you’ve probably been around longer than it has.
From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving Day, and many more of them.