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Turkey Pardons, The Stuffing of Historic Legend
A Presidential Tradition Began Way Back but Not So Long Ago

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up for a little Thanksgiving tale. You think you've heard it before, but never quite like this.

Yes, it starts the same as it does every year.

Yesterday morning in the Rose Garden, surrounded by gourd-and-corn-husk decor best described as "harvest plenty," President Bush promised May the turkey that he would not be served with a side of yams on Thanksgiving. Nor would May's pal Flower.

These names were "certainly better than the names the vice president suggested, which was 'Lunch' and 'Dinner,' " the president joked.

Chuckles from the audience. Gulgulgulgulguls from the turkey. Such a happy day.

The Thanksgiving presidential turkey pardon. It's a tradition, major newspapers have reported for years, that began in 1947 with President Harry S. Truman -- a sentimental reprieve from the man who had thumbs-upped two atomic bombs.

"To paraphrase Harry today," Bush said, "you cannot take the heat -- and you're definitely going to stay out of the kitchen."

Americans gobbled up this annual parable of mercy.

But like any masterly misdirection, like a fake FEMA news conference, like a government-produced "news" segment, ah, the turkey pardonings are not what they seem.

* * *

The photos of Truman pardoning his turkeys looked real enough -- live turkey, live prez, grandly extending his hand toward the tom's wattle in a gesture that surely said Emancipation! Liberation! Freedom!

Except it didn't.

The archivists at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Mo., have tried to set the record straight. Right there on the Web site is the statement: "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."

What Truman was doing in the photo, say the archivists, was receiving a turkey, kicking off an annual tradition of presidents receiving turkeys from the National Turkey Federation.

Furthermore, says archivist Tammy Kelly rather gravely, "the Trumans were not animal people."

For example? They re-gifted a cocker spaniel named Feller intended to be a Truman family pet. "The poultry board gave [Truman] turkeys every year," Kelly adds, "and we think they probably ended up on the dinner table."

The turkey tale is the same over at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, where the records of the destination of each turkey in each year of the Ike presidency read, "Turkey to be dressed" -- and we ain't talking tuxedos -- then delivered to the president's table.

Rinse and repeat for presidents Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. The respective archivists say with some embarrassment there's no evidence their presidents ever pardoned any turkeys, though they did the photo op with them each year. (Except for Carter, says archivist Dave Stanhope, "He never did any of the trimmings around Thanksgiving." Rosalynn was the one who had to receive the turkey.) The tradition must have skipped past just their presidents, some researchers say, because the whole thing definitely started with Truman.

What kind of freaky "1984" sham is going on here?

Are we talking mind control? Mass-implanted memories?

If Uncle Sam's Big Brother can perpetrate this, is it possible that somewhere in Eastern Europe, there are "black site" prisons filled with persecuted dinner rolls and canned cranberry sauce?

After all, the current administration is the one that paid pundit Armstrong Williams to spontaneously talk up the No Child Left Behind Act on his television show. The one that provided local TV stations with "news" segments featuring PR professionals playing journalists and "interviewing" administration officials in scripted Q&As.

And then last month, that faux FEMA briefing, in which FEMA employees coyly asked other FEMA employees to comment on FEMA disaster response, and everyone came to the consensus that FEMA rocked.

Where did this avian viral story come from?

Onward with our investigation!

* * *

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!

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.

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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