Presidential Turkey Pardons are Good PR

Nov 26, 2019

Traditions are often passed down through generations without question of where they originated. When it comes to the annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey, the “tradition” includes much more marketing history than many would ever believe.

President Abraham Lincoln first proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day forward one week to the fourth Thursday in November, as it is celebrated today.

The History of Pardoning Turkeys

The roots of the presidential turkey pardon came about, in part, because of a beef between President Harry S. Truman and the Poultry and Egg National Board. In the post-war boom of 1947, Truman attempted to convince the public to adopt “poultryless Thursdays” to conserve food and share with the less fortunate across the Atlantic.

Obviously, with Thanksgiving (and that year, Christmas and New Year’s Day) landing on a Thursday, this flustered the feathers of the poultry folks. As a protest, poultry growers across the country sent crates of live chickens — “Hens for Harry” — to the White House. The protest worked, and Truman put an end to the poultry ban in time for Thanksgiving.

That same year, the turkey industry began its own “turkey presentation,” dropping off a turkey at the White House to show the importance of presidential-poultry partnerships. This sporadic tradition continued and in 1963, President John F. Kennedy said of his “pardoned” turkey, “Let’s keep him going.”

A Marketing Tradition Continues

A few years later during President Richard Nixon’s presidency, his wife Patricia accepted the turkey and sent the bird to the Oxon Hill Children’s Farm. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, took a similar step and sent the turkey to Evans Farm Inn to live in a miniature zoo. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush maintained the turkey tradition, much to the enjoyment of reporters each Thanksgiving season, who found the whole situation quite amusing.

“But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy,” President Bush said in 1989, with animal rights protesters nearby. “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.”

This much-beloved turkey tradition continues today, with the National Turkey Federation presenting President Donald Trump turkeys Bread and Butter for the annual turkey to pardon. It’s become an opportunity for the federation to spread the word about turkey industry practices and promote the group. 

Long Story Short: It isn’t always essential for an opportunity to already exist for an organization to take advantage of it. Sometimes, it means starting your own tradition and letting it marinate over time.

Forward this fowl story.

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