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The History of the Presidential Turkey Pardon

(Harry S. Truman Library)
Nothing a president does lends itself more easily to a punch line – deliberate or inadvertent - than the annual pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey.

"I think it's kind of funny, and it's an annual ritual," said President Clinton at his first turkey pardon ceremony in 1993.

He said the pardon was easy for him "because I've been around turkeys all my life." Upon realizing the double meaning of his statement, Mr. Clinton was quick to add: "I didn't mean it like that."

At the turkey pardon in 2001, President George W. Bush observed that "our guest of honor looks a little nervous. Nobody's told him yet that I'm going to give him a pardon."

Read About This Year's Turkey Pardon Ceremony with President Obama

In 1990, then-President George H. W. Bush sought to allay the fears of his audience that a "terrible fate" awaited the turkey presented him.

"We've decided to spare him. He will not be subjected to questions from the Washington press corps after this ceremony."

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
It's a long-standing tradition for American turkey growers to present the U.S. president with a Thanksgiving turkey. Pardoning the bird is a more recent practice. Some presidents were clearly more in stuffing & eating the turkey than pardoning it.

"I hadn't been quite sure what I was going to eat Thanksgiving," said President Johnson before Thanksgiving in 1964, "but I am glad I can eat turkey instead of crow.

In 1981, on receiving a Tom Turkey from the National Turkey Federation, President Reagan was asked what he's going to do with Tom.

"Eat him," said Mr. Reagan straightforwardly.

Many presidents have noted at this time of year that in America's earliest years, there was a great debate as to what the national symbol of the country should be. Benjamin Franklin argued that it should be the turkey rather than the eagle.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
At a Thanksgiving Day Dinner for senior citizens in 1969, President Nixon disagreed with Franklin about designating the turkey as our national bird.

"I think when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, it would have sounded rather funny to say, '(The) Turkey has landed,' and today I think you will all agree you would not want to eat eagle."

These days, after a turkey gets pardoned, it is flown to Disneyland to take part in the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

What would Ben Franklin think?

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here:
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