Thanksgiving Turkey Traditions at the White House

by: Mark Hughes
Not all presidents pardoned their Thanksgiving turkeys. Who did and who didn't. And what happened to the turkeys? Find out, along with some interesting turkey facts.

On Tuesday, President Trump marked the 70th anniversary of the Thanksgiving Turkey presentation in the White House rose garden. Unlike the first president to receive a turkey, Harry S. Truman, Trump pardoned both turkeys, named Drumstick and Wishbone.

So what's the story behind this somewhat odd tradition of pardoning turkeys?

The Beginning

Since 1947, The National Turkey Federation (NTF) and The Poultry and Egg National Board (PENB) have donated a turkey to the White House each Thanksgiving. But not all presidents pardoned their turkeys. Not until George H.W. Bush's first Thanksgiving in the White House in 1989, did the official tradition of pardoning begin.

Harry S. TrumanThanksgiving Presidential Tradition Harry Truman

President Harry S. Truman was in office when the NTF and PENB began donating turkeys to the White House. Recent presidents have said that the tradition of pardoning a turkey began with Truman, but there's no evidence that he did anything but eat them. This photograph shows a turkey given to Truman by the NTF before it ended up on the dinner table.

Turkey fact: The average lifespan of domesticated turkeys is 18-24 months. Wild turkeys typically live 3 to 4 years.

Photo: whitehouse.gov

Dwight D. Eisenhower

During President Eisenhower's first term in office, the live turkey he received was then killed, dressed and frozen. During his second term, the turkey tradition changed; the turkey presented to the president was not the same bird that was later eaten in the White House. That one was brought in later, already dead and dressed.

Turkey fact: Turkeys are approximately 22 weeks old when they participate in the White House ceremony. There are always two turkeys: one for the ceremony and one as its runner-up.

John F. KennedyThanksgiving Presidential Tradition Kennedy

When President John F. Kennedy was presented with a bird wearing a sign that read "Good Eatin' Mr. President" he responded "Let's just keep him." This photograph was taken three days before President Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

Turkey fact: Wild turkeys can fly short distances at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Most domesticated turkeys cannot fly since they typically weigh more than twice the weight of wild turkeys.

Photo: whitehouse.gov

Richard Nixon

President Richard Nixon did a photo shoot every year with the donated turkey, but there is no record that any of the birds were spared. Nixon does have the distinction of being the first vice president to accept the donated turkey on the president's behalf, which he did in 1955 for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Turkey fact: Domesticated turkeys are bred and raised to become fat fast. This often causes joint problems for older turkeys whose bones have trouble supporting the weight.

Photo: whitehouse.gov

Gerald FordThanksgiving Presidential Tradition Ford

Ford never pardoned any turkeys, but he did pardon his predecessor—Richard Nixon. This photograph seems to show President Ford looking hungrily at the turkey in 1975.

Turkey fact: The flap of skin over a turkey's beak is called a snood. Snoods on domestic turkeys remain red, but the snoods of wild turkeys change color from red to blue depending on the bird's mood.

Photo: whitehouse.gov

Ronald Reagan

Turkeys chosen for the White House are usually pretty tame, but that wasn't the case in 1984. During the ceremonial speech, the turkey got right in President Reagan's face and flapped its wings, showing intense displeasure at the whole affair.

Turkey fact: Wild turkeys are the biggest game birds in North America. They can stand almost four feet tall and can run about 25 miles per hour.

Photo: whitehouse.gov

George H.W. BushThanksgiving Presidential Tradition George HW Bush

The turkey "will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy. He's granted a presidential pardon as of right now," said George H.W. Bush whose announcement in 1989 inaugurated the first official Thanksgiving presidential turkey pardon. In 1990, the practice of sending the "pardoned" bird to Frying Pan Park in Fairfax County, Virginia began.

Turkey fact: The domesticated turkeys that are brought to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony spend the night before the pardon in the Hotel Washington, where they feast on a scrumptious meal of corn and soybean.

Photo: whtehouse.gov

Bill Clinton

In 1999, the turkey President Clinton "pardoned" was named Harry, after former president Harry S. Truman. During his speech, Clinton said, "So before I feast on one of the 45 million turkeys who will make the ultimate sacrifice, let me give this one a permanent reprieve, and tell you all that he will soon be on his way to the wonderful petting zoo at Fairfax County, Virginia, where he can enjoy his golden years."

Turkey Fact: During his two terms as president, Clinton met eight turkeys and came to believe that each one had a distinct personality.

Photo: whitehouse.gov

George W. BushThanksgiving Presidential Tradition George W Bush

Several notable events concerning the "pardoning" of turkeys occurred while George W. Bush was president. It was during his administration that the first hen, or female turkey, was given a reprieve in 2002. The hen was named "Katie." In 2005 and 2006, the tradition of sending the turkeys to Frying Pan Park also changed; those years the turkey was flown to Disneyland where the bird was named Grand Marshall of the Thanksgiving Day Parade before taking up residence at the resort's permanent live-animal collection. In 2007, the turkey went to Disney World.

Turkey Fact: Female turkeys are called hens, males are called toms, and babies are called poults.

Photo: whitehouse.gov

Barack Obama

President Obama was famous for his "dad" jokes during his presidential turkey pardons. During his last pardon in 2015, he even went so far to quip that there had been "fierce competition between a bunch of turkeys to win their way into the White House," referring the the large number of Republican candidates hoping to take his job in 2016.

Pardoning a turkey is all well and good, but what about the one for your Thanksgiving feast? What should you serve with it? Check out our handy recipes to get you from apps to dessert.