A presidential poultry pardon
Though historians may disagree on the exact timeline of the first U.S. Thanksgiving — and it is unknown whether turkey was even on the menu back then — the annual tradition of consuming this uniquely American bird on the fourth Thursday in November eventually caught on, and Thanksgiving was officially declared a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
The official "pardoning" of White House turkeys, however, didn’t get its start until much later. The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation began in 1947 under President Harry S. Truman and carried on over the next few decades, with presidents occasionally sparing the birds from their dinner table fate to live out their remaining days on farms or in zoos instead. It wasn’t until 1989 when, during his first year in office, President George H. W. Bush decided to instill a permanent Thanksgiving poultry pardon, thus resulting in the tradition that has carried on annually for 29 years.
How it works
Each year, shortly before Thanksgiving Day, the National Turkey Federation (NTF) organizes the presentation of a live bird to the current U.S. president. The NTF chairman receives a formal White House invitation and arrives with two turkeys in tow, and though one bird is official and the other is considered a back-up, both go on to a life of leisure after their presidential pass.
To fulfill the annual pardon, a small flock of Broad Breasted White turkeys is raised each year, typically on the farm of the current NTF chairperson. The birds are rigorously maintained and are even trained to handle the pressures of fame — loud noises, flash photography and crowds — and to stand quietly on a table. Finalists are ultimately chosen for both their looks and their personalities. Their names are then selected by White House staff, who often receive suggestions from schoolchildren residing in the state in which the birds were raised. For instance, the 2017 pair raised in Minnesota were aptly named Drumstick and Wishbone.
While these birds are typically short-lived — the average lifespan of this meaty breed is between three and five years — the pardoned turkeys often go on to spend their golden years at posh digs like George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. They’ve also previously received new homes at Disney World, Disneyland, a Virginia farm park and a special home for turkeys at Virginia Tech University known as Gobbler’s Rest.
A first-time honor
For the first time ever, South Dakota will have the honor of providing the 2018 White House turkeys. Manager of Riverside Turkey Farm Ruben Waldner, this year’s presidential turkey handler, has raised a special flock of 49 birds and will aid in selecting the lucky duo. During the week of Thanksgiving, the birds will be escorted by Ruben to their special suite overlooking the White House at the four-star Willard InterContinental Hotel, where they will be introduced to the media before being presented to President Trump by Jeff Sveen, chairman of the board of Dakota Provisions and current chairman of the NTF.
As former President Barack Obama mentioned during his final turkey pardon in 2016 — when he kept turkeys Tater and Tot from becoming a Thanksgiving meal — one thing’s for sure: these birds will get to ride the gravy train to freedom.