President Joe Biden on Monday performed one of the presidency’s most solemn and sacred duties: to save an innocent life from certain death. Just kidding: Biden “pardoned” a pair of turkeys named Chocolate and Chip on the White House lawn in one of the silliest traditions of American politics.
The annual “national Turkey pardon” is a rare light-hearted moment that presidents can routinely attend. It’s one of the fluffier events on the President’s agenda, serving as a unifier and serving to speak about the values of the nation. And yes, a chance to make as many Thanksgiving puns as possible.
This particular tradition only dates back to 1989, despite what the media coverage might suggest. But we’re starting a lot further back because I’ve done a lot more research than I need to, so you’re going to sit there and read about it while you wait for the less well-connected turkey to finish cooking in your oven.
Our story begins with President Abraham Lincoln—he was the one who got the ball rolling first on Thanksgiving, a national holiday, during the Civil War. In a letter to Lincoln, Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire writer and editor who had campaigned for more holidays in America, urged him to “make the day of our annual Thanksgiving a national and observant Union celebration.” Lincoln agreed and declared the last Thursday in November 1863 as Thanksgiving Day.
Woven into this story is the first unofficial presidential pardon of a turkey. Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was tied to a turkey given to the first family for Christmas dinner that same year and named the bird Jack. The 10-year-old was dismayed that the turkey was about to reach the business end of a frying pan and, according to a statement, he burst into a cabinet meeting to seek clemency for Jack. Lincoln relented and wrote a grace period on a card and gave it to Tad to take into the kitchen. It’s unclear what replaced Jack as the main course this year.
We can fast-forward to 1947, when the National Turkey Federation, which to this day helps pardons, gave President Harry Truman a turkey for Thanksgiving, beginning an annual tradition that sometimes included a photo op. This bird was probably eaten. So did the vast majority of the turkeys that the association made available to almost every president for the next 40 years. (John F. Kennedy casually spared the life of the turkey he received in 1963, but nowhere near the pomp that would come later.)
At one point it was decided to ship the birds to a petting zoo instead of eating them. (Richard Nixon appears to have been the first President to do so.) In 1987, Ronald Reagan became the first President to invoke a pardon. In typical fashion, he deflected questions about whether he would pardon the perpetrators of the Iran-Contra scandal by joking about the turkey Charlie he was given that year: “If they had given me a different answer to Charlie and.” I would have forgiven him for his future.”
George HW Bush also typically appropriated this joke and took it literally. “Let me assure you and that fine turkey that it’s not going to end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy,” Bush said before signing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. “He was granted a presidential pardon effective immediately – and allowed to spend his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”
If you’re wondering why pardon became a thing, or why Bush decided to end the tradition in the first place, your guess is as good as mine. Bush’s staff had no idea when asked about it in 2007. But every president since has done so, throwing as many father jokes into a single event as the speechwriters could squeeze in. Even former President Donald Trump seemed to enjoy the annual ceremonies, making them the least odd moments of his tenure — relatively speaking, of course.
While we’re here, let’s talk a little about the presidential power that drives this running gag. I’ve written before about the importance of the power of clemency, the role clemency plays in our justice system, and how ripe it is for abuse in the wrong hands. And there remains a massive backlog of clemency and clemency requests: As of May, the Justice Department sorted through more than 17,000 requests that had accumulated over the past two decades.
It’s definitely fun to see the President standing next to the always huge turkeys; That year, Chocolate and Chip weighed nearly 50 pounds each. But moving forward, let’s see if the White House can’t mix some substance with the fluff. The spirit of Thanksgiving and the sparing of life would be better served if the President signed a few parole and commutation writs of real people along with the traditional turkey pardon.