In Other News: A Brief History of the Annual White House Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon

There are competing claims about when the annual White House tradition of “pardoning” a Thanksgiving turkey began. Some say it dates back to the 1860s, when Abraham Lincoln’s young son Tad begged his dad to spare the life of a wild turkey named Jack that had been sent to the Lincolns to be part of a holiday dinner. 

Others claim that the tradition began during Harry Truman’s administration. Although it’s true that the National Turkey Federation has been providing holiday turkeys to the White House since 1947, when Truman was in office, there’s no evidence to prove that this story is true. 

While John F. Kennedy spared a turkey’s life on November 19, 1963, just three days before his assassination, he didn’t use the word “pardon.” Instead, the bird had a sign hanging around its neck that read, GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT! which prompted Kennedy to quip, “Let’s just keep him going.” 

The first president to use the word “pardon” in reference to a holiday turkey was reportedly Ronald Reagan, who deflected questions in 1987 about pardoning Oliver North in the Iran-Contra affair by joking that he would also pardon a turkey named Charlie, who was already heading to a local petting zoo.

Which brings us to George H.W. Bush, who was apparently the first president to intentionally “pardon” a turkey. At the National Turkey Presentation Ceremony in 1989, Bush light-heartedly remarked: “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy – he’s granted a Presidential pardon as of right now – and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”

Although no one knows exactly when this White House tradition began, we do know where some of the turkeys have been sent after receiving their presidential reprieves. From 1989 to 2004, the fortunate fowls were sent to live at Frying Pan Farm in Virginia. 

The venue changed in 2005, however, when Disneyland was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. That year, a lucky turkey named Marshmallow and his alternate Yam were taken by police escort to the airport and then flown first class to California. 

According to the Associated Press: Marshmallow became the Grand Marshal of Disneyland’s Thanksgiving parade and the sign above his float read “The Happiest Turkey on Earth.” The turkeys then retired to a coop at the park’s Big Thunder Ranch. Disney World in Florida got the birds in 2007, when they arrived on a United Airlines flight renamed “Turkey One.”

In 2010, the venue changed yet again. Instead of being sent to Disneyland, the 21-week-old turkey that Barack Obama pardoned was sent to live out the rest of his life at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia. Upon its arrival, it was driven to his pen in a horse-drawn carriage and greeted with trumpet fanfare.

A spokeswoman for Mount Vernon said it was appropriate that the turkey go to Washington’s home since he was the first president to issue a national Thanksgiving Proclamation and he raised wild turkeys at Mount Vernon. 

So what does this have to do with golf? Nothing! Except to say that the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest golf day of the year—so book your tee time early then tee it high and let it fly!

Enjoy your walk,

Suzy Evans, J.D., Ph.D.

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