Presidential Thanksgiving traditions


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, November 28th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re glad you are! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up, presidents and turkeys.

In 1873, a Rhode Island farmer sent a turkey to Ulysses S. Grant at the White House. He continued to send a turkey for the next 40 years, through 10 presidents. In 1947 the National Turkey Federation picked up the tradition. And every year since, presidents have welcomed turkeys to the White House—some as dinner, others as guests.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Earlier this week, two massive white turkeys checked into Washington D.C.’s Willard InterContinental Hotel. 

“Butter” and “Bread” are the latest birds to carry on a 72 year tradition. 

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States and Mrs. Trump…

On Tuesday afternoon, the “toms” showed up on schedule as President Donald Trump and first lady Melania welcomed them to the Rose Garden. 

DONALD TRUMP: The first lady and I are delighted to welcome you all to the White House on this magnificent autumn day…As we gather this week with loved ones across our beautiful land, we thank God for the many gifts He’s bestowed upon us. Today we also come together to honor the beautiful feathered friend, the noble turkey. And that’s a beauty.

White House archives indicate that both Harry Truman and Dwight Esienhower ate at least some of their annual turkey visitors. In 1963 JFK sent his turkey back to the farm to “keep growing.” 

Records are unclear about Lyndon Johnson’s habits, but Richard Nixon seems to have spared most of his featured presents. Jimmy Carter wouldn’t even accept the turkeys, so the first lady arranged to send them to various petting zoos. An example that Ronald Regan followed. 

Every president since George H.W. Bush has gone a step further and actually issued a “Presidential Pardon” for at least one of the turkeys. 

DONALD TRUMP: In keeping with that tradition, today I will issue a pardon to a pair of very handsome birds. “Butter” and his alternate, “Bread.” Their names were chosen by the students of Harrells Christian Academy in North Carolina…

In 1989, President Bush started the ceremony on a more serious note…

BUSH: 200 years ago, George Washington signed the original proclamation for a day of Thanksgiving.

But then the turkey stole the show. 

BUSH: A day of thanks for the bounty we enjoy…[GOBBLE] And above all, the blessings of freedom. That’s why I’m so pleased to welcome the young Americans, recent newcomers to our country, who are here today. Like every American [GOBBLE]…come on, this is serious stuff!  

Over the last 25 years, presidents just can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to making puns. Here’s President Clinton from his first Turkey Pardoning Ceremony in 1993:

CLINTON: Somebody pointed out this morning that this may not be the only turkey I’ve had in my administration, but this is one I will certainly set free…

President Barack Obama went into full “dad joke mode” in 2015.

OBAMA: As you may have heard, for months there has been a fierce competition of a bunch of turkeys trying to win their way into the White House. Some of you caught that. Well today, I can announce the American people have spoken. We have two winners. Their names are “Honest” and “Abe.” Abe is now a free bird. He is TOTUS. The turkey of the United States. Yeah. Oh, boy. Okay, that’s funny. It is hard to believe this is my seventh year pardoning a turkey. Time flies, even if turkeys don’t…

Many presidents have also used the opportunity to take jabs at the press or political opponents. Again, Barack Obama…

OBAMA: I know some folks think this tradition is a little silly. I do not disagree. I’ve got to listen to my critics. Say I’m too soft on turkeys. And I’m sure the press is digging into the turkey’s I’ve pardoned have really rededicated their lives to be good turkey citizens…

During this week’s event, Donald Trump alluded to the impeachment hearing:

TRUMP: Thankfully Bread and Butter have been specially raised by the Jacksons to remain calm under any condition, which will be very important because they’ve already received subpoenas to appear in Adam Schiff’s basement on Thursday…it’s true…

While school children and White House staff enjoy the light-hearted turkey presentation and pardon each year, there is a less celebrated duty that often precedes the Rose Garden ceremony.

From the beginning of our nation, every president has issued a Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, calling the nation to set aside a day for more than just turkey. 

George Washington declared in 1789: “[May we] then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions…”

In 1947, Harry S Truman wrote: “Older than our nation itself is the hallowed custom of resting from our labors for one day at harvest time and of dedicating that day to expressions of gratitude to Almighty God for the many blessings which He has heaped upon us.” 

And George W. Bush, wrote on November 16th, 2001: “In thankfulness and humility, we acknowledge, especially now, our dependence on One greater than ourselves…May Almighty God, who is our refuge and our strength in this time of trouble, watch over our homeland, protect us, and grant us patience, resolve, and wisdom in all that is to come.”

Happy Thanksgiving. 

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.


(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Two male turkeys from North Carolina named Bread and Butter, that will be pardoned by President Donald Trump, hang out in their hotel room at the Willard InterContinental Hotel, Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Washington. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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