The Slatest

The Best Photos We Didn’t Use This Week: Which President Had the Weirdest Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon?

A close-up of two turkeys, with white feathers and blue and red wattles.
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Slate’s homepage editors spend a lot of time looking for editorial photos to put on our site. Those searches sometimes yield unexpected results: random, perplexing, and mesmerizing photos that don’t belong on the homepage, but that are too good not to share. Every week, we’ll share the weirdest photo from the wires.

While looking for some photos of Thanksgiving turkeys ahead of this week’s holiday, I stumbled upon a bounty of weird photos from the annual presidential turkey pardon. The tradition has long, somewhat murky origins, with several presidents getting the credit for coming up with the unusual practice.

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In its various permutations, the tradition has provided numerous amusing photo-ops. Live birds and politicians are a heady comedic duo. Throw in the folksy trappings of the autumnal ceremony, and you’ve got a spectacle.

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A brief history of the tradition: Abraham Lincoln was the first president on record to grant clemency to a turkey, but it was not part of a Thanksgiving celebration. His son Tad had grown attached to a Christmas bird and didn’t want it to be killed.

Harry Truman is commonly credited with starting the tradition, but in reality, he just kicked off the custom of presidents being gifted birds by the National Turkey Federation. In 1947, Truman ruffled some feathers by promoting “poultryless Thursdays.” Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day all fell on Thursdays that year, so as a publicity move, the poultry lobby gifted a turkey to Truman—but with the intention of him eating it, not sparing it.

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The tradition of turkey pardoning as we know it today dates back to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Reagan was the first president to call it a “pardon” in 1987, and Bush formalized the practice in 1989.

Now for the main event: a roundup of some of the most memorable moments from modern turkey pardons I found in my Getty search rabbit hole.

Joe Biden and a turkey, both in profile.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
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Joe Biden and Peanut Butter, 2021
You know how sometimes dogs and their owners start to look alike? While I concede Biden and this bird do not bear a strong resemblance, there is something pleasantly complementary about the pair standing side by side in profile, both sporting downy white hair/feathers and pinkish skin.

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Two turkeys stand in the entryway of a hotel room. The carpet has been covered in wood shavings.
Saul Loeb/Getty Images
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Bread and Butter, 2019
A behind-the-scenes look at the turkeys’ accommodations ahead of their pardon. The birds, bred in North Carolina, stayed in a double room at the glitzy Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, complete with a bed of wood shavings all over the carpet.

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Barack Obama gestures with his hand (like he's waving) as a turkey in front of him spreads its wings.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Barack Obama and Tater, 2016
The flappable bird vs. the unflappable president.

Donald Trump speaks to a turkey as Melania stands next to them, looking uncomfortable.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
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Donald Trump, Melania Trump, and Corn, 2020
This is the platonic ideal of a Trump turkey pardon tableau. Donald Trump, doing his signature gesticulating, appears to be talking directly to the turkey. Melania looks stiff and less than thrilled to be in this situation.

A man in a suit bends down to put his face up to a turkey. Bill Clinton stands next to them.
Mark Wilson/Newsmakers via Getty Images
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Bill Clinton, Dan Glickman, and Jerry, 2000
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman is getting up close and personal with this bird. What secrets are they exchanging? Why is Jerry the turkey wearing a White House pass around his neck?

George W. Bush bows his head and gives a sheepish grin as he extends his hand to pet the head of a turkey being held by a man next to him.
Tim Sloan/Getty Images
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George W. Bush and Flyer, 2006
As far as I can tell, George W. Bush was the handsiest pardoner. In 2004, he even grabbed a turkey by its neck during the ceremony. In this photo, Bush’s sheepish grin and bowed head make him look like a shy kid hoping he won’t get bitten at the petting zoo.

Ronald Reagan looks surprised as a turkey in front of him spreads its wings and tries to take off.
HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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Ronald Reagan and Charlie, 1987
This photo is my favorite, both for the drama of Charlie’s attempted escape and for the moment’s historical significance: It was not just the first occasion when the president used the word pardon for a turkey, but an odd footnote to the Iran-Contra affair. During the Thanksgiving ceremony, Reagan sidestepped a question from a journalist about whether he would pardon the central figures in the scandal by responding with a joke about the turkey’s fate: “If they’d given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him.” Politicians being evasive: another time-honored American tradition.

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