The annual White House tradition of “pardoning” a turkey officially started with George H.W. Bush in 1989.
Starting in the 1940s, farmers would gift the president with some plump birds for roasted turkey over the holidays, which the first family would invariably eat.
While President John F. Kennedy was the first American president to spare a turkey’s life (“We’ll just let this one grow,” JFK quipped in 1963. “It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.”), the tradition of officially pardoning started with George H.W. Bush.
According to www.whitehousehistory.org, here is the real story behind the presidential turkey pardon:
Reports of turkeys as gifts to American presidents can be traced to the 1870s, when Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose began sending well fed birds to the White House. The First Families did not always feast upon Vose’s turkeys, but the yearly offering gained his farm widespread publicity and became a veritable institution at the White House. At Thanksgiving 1913, a turkey-come-lately from Kentucky shared a few minutes of fame with the fine-feathered Rhode Islander. Soon after, in December, Horace Vose died, thus ending an era.
By 1914, the opportunity to give a turkey to a president was open to everyone, and poultry gifts were frequently touched with patriotism, partisanship, and glee.
In 1921, an American Legion post furnished bunting for the crate of a gobbler en route from Mississippi to Washington, while a Harding Girls Club in Chicago outfitted a turkey as a flying ace, complete with goggles.
First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925. The turkey gifts had become established as a national symbol of good cheer.
White House mythmakers have claimed that President Harry S Truman began the tradition of “pardoning” a turkey. However, the Truman Library & Museum disputes the notion that he was the first to do so.
The focus on Truman stems from his being the first president to receive a turkey from the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation. From September to November 1947, announcements of the government encouraging “poultryless Thursdays” grabbed national headlines.
Outrage from homemakers, restaurant owners, and the poultry industry was palpable in Washington. This came to a head when the poultry industry pointed out that the upcoming Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, the three big turkey holidays, happened to fall on Thursday. The effort was deflated in time for Thanksgiving, but not before poultry growers had sent crates of live chickens — “Hens for Harry” — to the White House in protest. The turkey they presented to President Truman that December promoted the poultry industry and established an annual news niche that endures today.
While 1947 was the beginning of the official turkey presentation from the poultry industry, the turkey pardon remained a sporadic tradition. In December 1948, Truman accepted two turkeys and remarked that they would “come in handy” for Christmas dinner. There was clearly no plan for these birds to receive a presidential pardon.
The Washington Post used both “pardon” and “reprieve” in a 1963 article in which President Kennedy said of the turkey, “Let’s keep him going.” During the latter years of the Nixon presidency, Patricia Nixon accepted the turkeys on behalf of the President and in 1973 sent the bird to the Oxon Hill Children’s Farm. The 1978 turkey, presented to First Lady Rosalynn Carter, met a similar fate when it was sent to Evans Farm Inn to live in a mini zoo.
After 1981, the practice of sending the presentation turkey to a farm became the norm under President Ronald Reagan. The turkey ceremony also became a source of satire and humor for reporters. The formalities of pardoning a turkey gelled by 1989, when President George H.W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped, “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy -- he’s granted a Presidential pardon as of right now -- and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”