Explained: the strange truth behind the Thanksgiving turkey pardon tradition The White House's Thanksgiving practice doesn't go back as far as you might think and has been sustained by a special interest group — the turkey lobby.

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

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OK, it is that time of year again when the president takes part in one of the stranger American traditions, the presidential turkey pardon.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But it was George H.W. Bush who first issued an official pardon. In keeping with that tradition today, I will issue a pardon to a pair of very handsome birds; Butter and his alternate, Bread.

CHANG: Some 46 million turkeys will be eaten this Thanksgiving but not Bread or Butter, the two turkeys pardoned today by President Trump. Joining us now is Domenico Montanaro, NPR's senior political editor and correspondent and in-house turkey pardon expert.

Hello, Domenico.


CHANG: All right, we have lots of hard-hitting questions about all of this.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

CHANG: You have been covering this story for a decade now...

MONTANARO: For too long.

CHANG: You have written the history of it every year. This is absolutely not getting old for you, so why do presidents do this?

MONTANARO: Oh, this is getting old for me...

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: ...But I will say, like, this is all basically a big advertisement for Big Turkey.

CHANG: Big Turkey - move over Big Tobacco.

MONTANARO: I mean, the national - well, not quite - but the National Turkey Federation - turkeys, yes, have lobbyists, too - is behind this event. They've spent something like $3 million over the last 20 years on lobbying in Washington - not that much money compared to other groups but this is their marquee event. They started giving away turkeys to presidents in 1947, but the real distinction here is that they were always meant to be eaten not pardoned.

CHANG: Right.

MONTANARO: In fact, Bill Clinton famously got it wrong in 1997 when he said that the - that Harry Truman was the first to pardon a turkey. The Truman Library - I checked with them. They put out a statement saying they have no record...

CHANG: (Laughter) You fact-checked this.

MONTANARO: ...No record - this is what got me started on this - that they have no record of Harry Truman ever pardoning a turkey. The library said, quote, "Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table."

CHANG: OK, let's fact-check another thing. Is President Trump right? Was George H.W. Bush the first president to issue an official turkey pardon?

MONTANARO: The keyword there is official. Yes, he is correct on that, that he was the first to issue the official pardon, start the tradition that we know - 30 years ago; 1989, not that long ago. The president, though - Trump - he was wrong when he said that President Lincoln was the first to spare the life of a Thanksgiving turkey. He spared a Christmas turkey that his son Tad had...

CHANG: Oh, parsing the language. OK.

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, this matters. Truth matters.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: And you know, his son Tad had taken a liking to this bird and wanted to keep it as a pet. And they did.

CHANG: Really?

MONTANARO: He did. And I guess Trump was just winging it there. I don't know. But the best evidence we could find of the first Thanksgiving turkey being given a reprieve was John F. Kennedy in 1963. And to show you just how much this bird was meant to be eaten, it had a giant sign hanging around its neck that read, good eating, Mr. President.

CHANG: Oh, poor guy. OK, so where do these poor turkeys go? What happens to them after a pardon? Do they really avoid getting eaten?

MONTANARO: Well, they - yes. I mean, they go to Virginia Tech University now - they've done that for the last four years - to an exhibit called Gobbler's Rest.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: They'll be under the supervision of the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. Virginia Tech even brought in the Hokie mascot to bond with the birds at their hotel room. They stay at the very fancy Willard Hotel before the pardoning event. They used to go to Disneyland and the unfortunately named Frying Pan Park in Virginia.

CHANG: All this talk is making me wonder what's left for you to talk about next year. That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

Thanks so much, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Happy Thanksgiving.

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