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Turkey Pardons, The Stuffing of Historic Legend

President Truman kicked off the tradition of receiving a Thanksgiving turkey but evidently never pardoned one. Most likely they ended up on his table.
President Truman kicked off the tradition of receiving a Thanksgiving turkey but evidently never pardoned one. Most likely they ended up on his table. (By Abbie Rowe -- National Park Service/courtesy Harry S. Truman Library)

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Onward with our investigation!

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Let's talk turkey.

Most urban legends have at least a feed kernel of truth.

They serve purposes after all: to frighten the public, or amuse the public, or fill the public with gravy-like glurge on Thanksgiving Day.

This one's no exception.

Lincoln spared a turkey once -- it was meant for Christmas dinner, but his son Tad argued the turkey had as much a right to live as anyone, and Abe acquiesced. (Softie that he was, Lincoln also pardoned his son's toy soldier, Jack, a time or two, after he was "court-martialed" for falling asleep at his post.) Both Bill Clinton and the current Bush have referred to this story in their Thanksgiving speeches.

John F. Kennedy casually spared a turkey on Nov. 19, 1963, just days before his assassination. When given a bird wearing a sign reading, "Good Eatin' Mr. President," Kennedy said, "Let's just keep him." It wasn't an official pardon, says Kennedy archivist Steve Plotkin: "It was probably offhand, purely spontaneous."

In 1987, Ronald Reagan deflected questions about pardoning Oliver North in the Iran-contra case by joking about pardoning the turkey Charlie, who was already heading to a petting zoo.

At some point in presidential Thanksgiving history, the turkeys presented annually stopped heading for the White House table and headed off to petting zoos.

What does it matter, you may ask, whether those turkeys were officially pardoned? They lived anyway, for as long as their bloated, factory-fed bodies would allow.

They were, de facto, already pardoned, because they have not committed any crimes!


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