Turkey Pardons, The Stuffing of Historic Legend

A Presidential Tradition Began Way Back but Not So Long Ago

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007; Page C01

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.


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)

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.


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