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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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But a pardon is a pardon and a news conference is a news conference, and just because something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is not necessarily a pardoned turkey.

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Somewhere along the way, someone got confused, or decided to puff the ritual up with some pardon-flavored stuffing.

But here, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is the straight story, gleaned from the public papers of past presidents at the American Presidency Project:

The first officially pardoned bird debuted not in 1947 but in 1989 on the first Thanksgiving of George H.W. Bush.

"He will not end up on anyone's dinner table -- not this guy," Bush said. "He's granted a presidential pardon as of right now."

No one really knows why.

"I'm sure some speechwriter came up with some unique way" of letting turkeys live, says Bush I's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater. "Sounds like something they would do." He suggests phoning David Demarest, the former communications director.

Demarest doesn't remember either, though he does recall there was a lot of joking around in preparation for that event -- one gag briefing memo detailed the turkey's bloody death at the paws of Millie the dog.

The Bush library is no help; staffers there are as surprised as anyone to hear that their president pardoned the first turkey. "Until this morning we didn't know that he started it," archivist Zachary Roberts says. He'd always thought, in fact, that it was Truman.

Roberts will make note of the presidential first. But it probably won't make a difference to the public, who has grown used to swallowing flexible history.

And yesterday morning in the Rose Garden none of it mattered to May, who was content to huddle on his damask tablecloth and occasionally squawk.

Post-ceremony, the president said, both May and Flower would be "flown to Disney World, where they will serve as honorary grand marshals for the Thanksgiving Day Parade."

He then wished them luck on their journey: "May they live the rest of their lives in blissful gobbling."

Now that's a nice story.


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