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What’s the Story with Presidential Turkey Pardons?

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

It's a sure sign that Thanksgiving is just around the corner when the annual White House turkey pardon comes around. On Monday, President Joe Biden continued this somewhat baffling holiday tradition by “pardoning” two turkeys during a brief ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. It was also the president’s 81st birthday, though he joked that he was only turning 60.

This year’s lucky turkeys hail from Willmar, Minnesota. Named Liberty and Bell, the massive birds each weigh over 42 pounds (18 kg). The ceremony, which included numerous fowl-related puns, was attended by local schoolchildren and the children of Cabinet members and the president’s staff.

On Monday, President Biden “pardoned” two turkeys, Liberty and Bell, saving them from ending up on a Thanksgiving dinner table, in an annual tradition that became official under President George HW Bush in 1989.
On Monday, President Biden “pardoned” two turkeys, Liberty and Bell, saving them from ending up on a Thanksgiving dinner table, in an annual tradition that became official under President George HW Bush in 1989.

The National Turkey Federation has been supplying the White House with Thanksgiving turkeys since 1947. Although there have been presentation ceremonies since the Truman administration, those early turkeys didn’t have much to celebrate on Thanksgiving. Beginning with John F. Kennedy in 1963, U.S. presidents and first ladies pardoned turkeys sporadically. Interestingly, as CNN pointed out in a recent article, neither Richard Nixon nor Gerald Ford pardoned any turkeys, despite Ford’s famous pardon of Nixon in 1974.

Presidential turkey pardons were increasingly common during the Reagan years. They became an official White House tradition in 1989, during the administration of George H.W. Bush, when he announced that that year’s turkey would “live out his days on a children’s farm.”

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the current tradition is that the night before their pardon, the turkeys stayed at the upmarket Willard InterContinental hotel in Washington, D.C., where they were formally introduced to the public in a news conference. Chosen for being extroverts that aren’t ruffled by crowds, Liberty and Bell were exposed to recordings of music and clapping to prepare for the big event.

Something to gobble about:

  • Liberty and Bell will return to their home state to enjoy their “retirement” at the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

  • It’s not just the US president who pardons turkeys these days. State officials such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Withmer have also taken up the tradition. Michigan’s lucky bird this year is a turkey named Dolly Pardon.

  • Last year saw a record price of $64.05 for the average Thanksgiving meal for 10 people, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. This year’s average cost has dropped by 4.5% to $61.17, though still a staggering 25% higher than the average cost in 2019.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • On Monday, President Biden “pardoned” two turkeys, Liberty and Bell, saving them from ending up on a Thanksgiving dinner table, in an annual tradition that became official under President George HW Bush in 1989.
      By: GPA Photo Archive
      On Monday, President Biden “pardoned” two turkeys, Liberty and Bell, saving them from ending up on a Thanksgiving dinner table, in an annual tradition that became official under President George HW Bush in 1989.