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National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation is a ceremony that takes place at the White House every year shortly before Thanksgiving. The President of the United States is presented with a live domestic turkey, usually of the Broad Breasted White variety. Generally the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board are involved. Since 1989 during the first Thanksgiving of President George H. W. Bush, the president has granted the turkey a "presidential pardon" and thus spared the bird from being slaughtered.
The presentation of a turkey to the President each year began in 1947 under President Harry Truman, and many sources erroneously attribute the origin of the turkey pardon to Truman. However, the Truman Library says that no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs or other contemporary records are known to exist that specify that he ever "pardoned" a turkey; there are records that he publicly admitted to eating at least some of them. The Eisenhower Presidential Library says documents in their collection reveal that President Dwight Eisenhower ate the birds presented to him during his two terms. President John F. Kennedy spontaneously spared a turkey on Nov. 18, 1963, just four days before his assassination, but the act was done out of discomfort toward its size, not out of empathy. The bird was wearing a sign reading, "Good Eatin' Mr. President." Kennedy returned the massive 55-pound turkey to the farm, saying "we'll let this one grow."  At least one headline in the Los Angeles Times referred to it as a pardon, but Kennedy did not formally refer to it as such.
The first President on record issuing a "pardon" to his turkey was Ronald Reagan, who pardoned a turkey named Charlie and sent him to a petting zoo in 1987. The reference to it being a pardon was in response to criticism over the Iran-Contra affair, in which Reagan had been questioned on whether or not he would consider pardoning Oliver North (who had yet to be tried for his involvement in the affair); Reagan conjured the turkey pardon as a joke to deflect those questions. Reagan did not pardon a turkey in his final year as President in 1988, but his successor, George H. W. Bush, instituted the turkey pardon as a permanent part of the presentation beginning his first year in office, 1989. Since then, the turkey has been taken to a farm where it will live out the rest of its natural life. For many years the turkeys were sent to Frying Pan Park in Fairfax County, Virginia. From 2005 to 2009, the pardoned turkeys were sent to either the Disneyland Resort in California or the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, where they served as the honorary grand marshals of Disney's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, the turkeys were sent to live at Mount Vernon, the estate and home of George Washington; Mount Vernon stopped displaying and accepting the turkeys due to the fact that they violated the estate's policy of maintaining its own historical accuracy. The 2013 turkeys were sent to Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, the estate of former Virginia governor (and prolific turkey farmer) Westmoreland Davis.
The turkeys are raised in the same fashion as turkeys designated for slaughter and are fed a grain-heavy diet of fortified corn and soybeans to increase the birds' size. A flock of approximately 80 birds, typically from the farm of the current National Turkey Federation chairperson, are randomly selected "at birth" from thousands for pardoning and are trained to handle loud noises, flash photography and large crowds; from the flock of 80, the 20 largest and best-behaved are chosen and eventually narrowed down to two finalists, whose names are chosen by the White House staff. Because most Thanksgiving turkeys are bred and raised for size at the expense of longer life, they are prone to health problems associated with obesity such as heart disease, respiratory failure and joint damage. As a result of these factors, most of the pardoned turkeys have very short lives after their pardoning, frequently dying within a year of being pardoned.
A number of U.S. states have similar turkey-pardoning events, including Minnesota. The pardoning ceremonies have also been extended to other holidays; for instance, Erie County, New York's county executive facetiously pardons a butter lamb during Holy Week.
President Richard Nixon accepting a non-pardoned turkey.
President Gerald Ford accepting a non-pardoned turkey, 1975.
President Ronald Reagan accepting a non-pardoned turkey, 1983.
President George H.W. Bush at the 3rd annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey, 1991.
President Bill Clinton at the 10th annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey, 1999.
President George W. Bush at the 19th annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey, 2008.
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