Barack Obama, Bill Cinton & More Presidential Turkey Pardons (Photos)

President Obama spared Popcorn at the annual turkey pardon Wednesday, telling jokes along the way. The Daily Beast looks back at the Thanksgiving tradition.

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Clockwise from top left: Bettmann/Corbis; Wally McNamee / Corbis; Mark Wilson/Getty Images; Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

The first president to spare a turkey is said to have been Abraham Lincoln, whose son became so attached to the family’s Christmas turkey that he forced his dad to keep it as a pet. Lincoln gave the lucky bird the run of the White House. Modern presidents have continued the tradition. And though the turkeys no longer live at the White House, they do spend the days leading up to their pardon staying in a suite at the W Hotel in D.C. The Daily Beast takes a look at the beloved tradition through the years.

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U.S. President Barack Obama reacts after pardoning the National Thanksgiving turkey during the 69th annual presentation of the turkey in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S. November 23, 2016.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

President Barack Obama (L) applauds after pardoning the National Thanksgiving turkey "Abe" in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on November 25, 2015. President Obama's daughters Malia (R) and Sasha (2ndR) cheer the pardoning along with Foster Farms turkey growout manager Joe Hedden, (2ndL).

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Barack Obama

President Barack Obama pardons the National Thanksgiving Turkey "Cheese" during the annual ceremony in the Grand Foyer of the White House on November 26, 2014 in Washington, DC.

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Barack Obama

President Obama pardons the 2013 National Thanksgiving Turkey, Popcorn, with daughters Sasha and Malia during a November 2013 event at the White House.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

Barack Obama

It wasn’t just minorities and young voters whom President Obama promised “gifts” to in 2012’s election season. He also went after the crucial turkey vote, going so far as to pardon turkeys during each year of his presidency. Here he is pardoning one 19-week-old turkey, Liberty, back in 2011. And Cobbler and Gobbler were pardoned 2012. He’ll do anything to win.

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George W. Bush

President Bush may not have been the most enthusiastic president when it came to pardoning prisoners, but he was happy to pardon a turkey every now and then. Here he is sparing a turkey named Stars in 2003.

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Bill Clinton

Although Bill Clinton continued the turkey-pardoning tradition, 1998’s lucky turkey apparently didn’t get the memo. After running away and making a break for freedom before the ceremony, the turkey had to be chased down and re-caught in order to be spared. “I must say, of all the years I’ve been here, this is the most adventurous turkey we’ve had,” Clinton said.

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Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan did not pardon any turkeys. He joked about pardoning a turkey in 1987, but the turkey in question was already being sent to a petting zoo.

Wally McNamee / Corbis

Jimmy Carter

No picture of Jimmy Carter here—just his wife, Rosalynn, and daughter, Amy. That’s because Carter did not pardon any turkeys during his presidency. He didn’t even pose for the obligatory photo-op with the donated turkey each year. But it’s not because he was a sadist. According to one Carter historian, “He never did any of the trimmings around Thanksgiving.”

Wally McNamee / Corbis

Richard Nixon

You’ll notice the turkey’s feet are not visible in this photo. Perhaps this was the year during Nixon’s presidency that the turkey refused to sit still for the ceremony and had to be restrained. One former Nixon administration official said, “Regarding the effort to restrain the White House Thanksgiving turkey, it is my understanding that at least one year, they nailed its feet to the table.”


Lyndon B. Johnson

President Johnson seemed happy to attend the ceremony and accept the traditional turkey delivery in this photo. But presidential pardons were not common back then and this turkey probably ended up as Thanksgiving dinner. Decades later, President Obama said, “I understand President Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their turkeys.”

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John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy may have been the first president to save a Thanksgiving turkey. Days before his assassination, JFK spared the turkey that was delivered to the White House for Thanksgiving dinner, saying, “Let’s just keep him.” A newspaper headline the next day read, “Turkey Gets Presidential Pardon.” But a Kennedy archivist claimed it was not an official pardon. “It was probably offhand, purely spontaneous,” he said.