- President Biden will pardon two turkeys, Liberty and Bell, on Nov. 20, continuing a quirky White House tradition.
- The tradition of pardoning turkeys began informally in the 1960s and became an annual event under President George H. W. Bush in 1989.
- Pardoned turkeys now live out their days in comfort, with this year’s turkeys returning to Minnesota and being cared for by the University of Minnesota.
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, the White House is gearing up for one of its most unusual holiday traditions: the presidential turkey pardon. Each year, the president pardons one or two fortunate turkeys for unspecified offenses, saving them from becoming part of the Thanksgiving feast.
This year, President Biden will pardon Liberty and Bell, two 42-pound turkeys from Willmar, Minnesota. The pardon will take place on the South Lawn of the White House on November 20. In line with tradition, the turkeys spent the night before their pardon in a luxury suite at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington, D.C.
The turkey pardon has undoubtedly become a cherished White House tradition, but why do U.S. presidents pardon turkeys in the first place? The National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board began sending U.S. presidents turkeys in 1947, according to the White House Historical Association (WHHA). In the early days, these birds were still destined for the dinner table. For instance, when President Truman received two turkeys in December 1948, he noted that the birds would “come in handy” for Christmas dinner, as per the WHHA.
However, over the following decades, some presidents informally spared the lives of their gifted turkeys from time to time. In 1963, President Kennedy saved a turkey sent to him by the poultry industry, stating he would just “let this one grow,” according to the National Archives. In 1973, First Lady Patricia Nixon spared the life of a turkey sent to the White House, sending it to live on a children’s farm. In 1978, First Lady Rosalynn Carter followed suit, sending that year’s turkey to live out its days at a mini zoo, as per the WHHA.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the turkey pardon became more of a regular practice. However, it wasn’t until 1989, under President George H. W. Bush, that the turkey pardon became an annual tradition. Bush had been sent a turkey that year, and as animal rights activists picketed nearby, he promised that the bird would not meet an untimely end. “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 presented a presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here,” Bush said, according to the WHHA.
Since then, the turkey pardon has become a regular White House tradition. The WHHA also notes that while a tale has circulated about President Lincoln sparing the first Thanksgiving turkey back in 1863, this is likely a myth.
These days, pardoned Thanksgiving turkeys live out their days in comfort. After their whirlwind visit to Washington, D.C., this year’s turkeys, Liberty and Bell, will return to their home state of Minnesota and will be cared for by the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences. “You can imagine the wonderful care they’re going to get from students and veterinarians and professors,” Steve Lykken, chairman of the National Turkey Federation, told the Associated Press.
In a time when our nation faces countless challenges, the annual presidential turkey pardon offers a moment of levity and tradition. While some may question the necessity of this peculiar event, it serves as a reminder of our nation’s rich history and the importance of gratitude during the Thanksgiving season.
President Biden’s pardon of Liberty and Bell continues a lighthearted tradition that began under President George H. W. Bush, offering a brief respite from the political turmoil that often dominates the headlines. In the end, these fortunate turkeys serve as a symbol of America’s enduring spirit and the power of second chances.
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