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Turkey pardoning tradition lives on at White House

Pardoning turkeys at White House was sporadic tradition until President H.W. Bush made it official in 1989.

National Turkey Federation (NTF) chairman Kerry Doughty presented the National Thanksgiving Turkey named “Butter” to President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump this week during the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. Butter and his alternate, “Bread,” received a formal pardon from the President and will now reside at Gobblers Rest on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation is a time-honored American tradition that started in 1947.

“As we gather this week with loved ones across our land, we give thanks to God for the many gifts he has bestowed upon us,” Trump said during the presentation. “Today, we also come together to honor our beautiful feathered friend: the noble turkey. ... This Thanksgiving, we bow our heads in gratitude for the newfound prosperity and spirit that’s taking place all across America.”

Doughty said, “As Americans prepare to gather to give thanks, it is an honor to be invited to present the National Thanksgiving Turkey to the President and First Lady. Being here with my family today and participating in this special tradition is one of the highlights of my career in the turkey industry and a reminder of all that we have to be grateful for, including those who are working day in and day out to bring food to our tables.”

Doughty is the former president and chief executive officer of Butterball. He has spent more than 35 years in the turkey industry.

The annual presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey at the White House has become a highly anticipated tradition in the nation’s Capitol, signaling the unofficial beginning of the holiday season and providing the President and the nation with an opportunity to reflect publicly on the meaning of Thanksgiving. The presentation also highlights the contributions of America’s turkey growers as well as the important role of agriculture in modern America.

Butter and Bread were raised under the supervision of Doughty by Butterball contract grower Wellie Jackson of North Carolina.

While in Washington, D.C., the turkeys stayed at the historic Willard InterContinental, adjacent to the White House grounds. Their permanent home at Gobblers Rest is a custom-built enclosure inside the Virginia Tech animal and poultry science department’s Livestock Pavilion.

Pardoning history

According to the White House Historical Assn. (WHHA), it is often stated that the origin for the pardoning ceremony was President Abraham Lincoln’s clemency to a turkey recorded in an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks.

WHHA further noted that reports of turkeys as gifts to American presidents can be traced to the 1870s, when Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose began sending well-fed birds to the White House.

“The First Families did not always feast upon Vose's turkeys, but the yearly offering gained his farm widespread publicity and became a veritable institution at the White House,” the WHHA website states, adding that Vose died just after Thanksgiving in 1913, thus ending the era.

By 1914, however, the opportunity to give a turkey to a President was open to everyone, and poultry gifts were frequently touched with patriotism, partisanship and glee, the WHHA said.

“In 1921, an American Legion post furnished bunting for the crate of a gobbler en route from Mississippi to Washington, while a Harding Girls Club in Chicago [Ill.] outfitted a turkey as a flying ace, complete with goggles. First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from a Vermont girl scout in 1925. The turkey gifts had become established as a national symbol of good cheer.”

Pardoning the turkeys remained a sporadic event until the “official” pardon was issued by Bush in 1989, after which it became a tradition.

President Harry S. Truman accepted two turkeys in December 1948 and remarked that they would "come in handy" for Christmas dinner, which indicated no plan for the birds to receive a pardon. WHHA further relayed that The Washington Post used both "pardon" and "reprieve" in a 1963 article in which President John F. Kennedy said of the turkey, "Let's keep him going."

During the latter years of the Nixon Administration, WHHA said the First Lady accepted the turkeys on behalf of the President. In 1973, she sent the bird to the Oxon Hill Children’s Farm. In 1978, the turkey presented to Rosalynn Carter was sent to Evans Farm Inn to live in a mini zoo. The practice of sending the presentation turkey to a farm became the norm under President Ronald Reagan after 1981.

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