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Pardon My Turkey: A Look Back at Past Thanksgiving Traditions at the White House

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The tradition of the White House turkey pardon has a long and storied past, with rumors of the concept going as far back as the Lincoln administration.

During Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, his young son allegedly asked his father to save a pet turkey from the dinner table.

Rumors suggest former President Harry S. Truman officially kicked off the tradition of pardoning a turkey in 1947. However, the Truman Library & Museum claims that is not the case.

“The Library’s staff has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency,” the library explained.

According to the White House, President George H.W. Bush was the first to officially offer a turkey pardon. Since then, every president has upheld the tradition.

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1998

WASHINGTON, : US President Bill Clinton stands with the annual Thanksgiving turkey as his handler Walter Gislason (L) looks on during presentation ceremonies 24 November at the White House in Washington, DC. The bird, presented to the President by the National Turkey Federation was given an official pardon from becoming dinner and sent to a local petting zoo. (TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Former President Bill Clinton’s turkey pardon in 1998 took a surprising turn when a handler had to chase the bird in the rose garden.

“I must say, of all the years I’ve been here, this is the most adventurous turkey we’ve ever had,” Clinton said.

The turkey pardon came just months after Clinton admitted to having an affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

2001

WASHINGTON, : US President George W. Bush(R) pets “Liberty” the turkey during the Annual Pardoning of the Thanksgiving Turkey in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC 19 November 2001. The turkey will go to a local petting zoo instead of being slaughtered for Thanksgiving. Behind the Turkey are Jeff Radford(L), and Stuart Proctor(C), President of the National Turkey Foundation. (LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty Images)

Former President George W. Bush carried on the tradition by pardoning “Liberty” just two months after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

“We’ve been through some tough times, some testing moments during the last months, yet we’ve never lost sight of the blessings around us,” Bush said.

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He added, “The freedoms we enjoy, the people we love, and the many gifts of our prosperous land. On this holiday, we give thanks for our many blessings and for life itself.”

2016

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 23: The National Thanksgiving Turkey, ‘Tot,’ flaps its wings after being pardoned by U.S. President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House November 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. The President celebrated the 69th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation. Hatched and raised in Iowa, the 2016 National Thanksgiving Turkey and its alternate will retire to ‘Gobblers Rest’ at Virginia Tech. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In 2016, former President Barack Obama celebrated his final turkey pardon at the White House. Obama commented on his responsibility of pardoning the birds, “Tater” and “Tot.”

He said, “It is my great privilege — well, it’s my privilege — actually, let’s just say it’s my job to grant them clemency this afternoon.”

Obama also cracked jokes about the turkeys, saying, “Tater is here in a backup role just in case Tot can’t fulfill his duties. So he’s sort of like the vice turkey. We’re working on getting him a pair of aviator glasses.”

He also said, “I want to take a moment to recognize the brave turkeys who weren’t so lucky. Who didn’t get to ride the gravy train to freedom. Who met their fate with courage and sacrifice and proved that they weren’t chicken.”

2017

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 21: U.S. President Donald Trump (C), first lady Melania Trump, their son Barron, National Turkey Federation Chairman Carl Wittenburg and his family and members of the Draper County, Minnesota, 4-H chapater pose for photographs after Trump pardoned, Drumstick, the National Thanksgiving Turkey in the Rose Garden at the White House November 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. Following the presidential pardon, the 40-pound White Holland breed which was raised by Wittenburg in Minnesota, will then reside at his new home, ‘Gobbler’s Rest,’ at Virginia Tech. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump marked his first turkey pardon in 2017, giving “Drumstick” and “Wishbone” a bright future ahead. He also made jokes about Obama’s turkeys.

“I have been informed by the White House counsel’s office that Tater and Tot’s pardons cannot, under any circumstances, be revoked,” Trump said. “So, Tater and Tot, you can rest easy.”

Trump made headlines during his first year in the White House for pushing conspiracy theories and false claims about his accomplishments.

2021

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 19: Accompanied by Chairman of National Turkey Federation Phil Seger (L) and turkey grower Andrea Welp (C), U.S. President Joe Biden participates in the 74th annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon of Peanut Butter in the Rose Garden of the White House November 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. The 2021 National Thanksgiving Turkey, Peanut Butter, and alternate, Jelly, were raised in Jasper, Indiana and will reside on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, after today’s presentation. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden participated in the annual tradition on Friday, taking a moment to comment on the COVID-19 vaccine and impact the pandemic has had on Americans.

After pardoning “Peanut Butter” and “Jelly,” Biden suggested the birds were “selected on their temperament, appearance, and I suspect vaccination status.”

He joked, “Yes, instead of getting basted these two turkeys are getting boosted.”

Additionally, Biden acknowledged those who have worked to combat the pandemic, adding, “From the Biden family to yours, we wish you a happy Thanksgiving. And may God bless you all and may God protect our troops.”

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