America’s Bird – The National Thanksgiving Turkey – hails from South Dakota this year. A prime example of the modern conventional way of raising turkey enjoyed by American families, this turkey is destined as a gift for the President of the United States. As the time-honored symbol of thanks that opens the holiday season, the presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey is traced through nearly seven decades and a dozen Presidents. Presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey by NTF began with President Harry Truman, and has continued through each presidential administration with a turkey raised at the direction of that year’s NTF chairman.
Carrying forward that history, this year’s turkey comes to the White House in the arms of National Turkey Federation Chairman Jeff Sveen. Jeff is the first person to represent South Dakota at the event as NTF Chairman. He has the honor of presenting this symbol of Thanksgiving and reminder of the blessings of the nation’s bountiful harvest. Recent custom has the president “pardoning” the turkey he receives.
However, escape from center plate in the president’s Thanksgiving dinner was not always the case. “Good Eating, Mr. President,” was the message carried by the live turkey to President Lyndon Johnson by Ray Thompson, the 1964 NTF chairman. There in the flower garden on what was also the Johnson’s 30th Wedding Anniversary, LBJ sized-up the turkey presumably headed to the White House kitchen for preparation.
When Leu Shefren brought his granddaughter to the White House for the 1976 presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey in that bicentennial year, the significance spanned generations as President Gerald Ford reminded Americans in his Thanksgiving proclamation of the blessings of liberty, peace and plenty that have been bestowed upon a grateful Nation through two centuries of progress.
Those cherished traditions of liberty, peace and plenty are often reflected in the names of the National Thanksgiving Turkey. School children are among those submitting names for consideration at the White House. Names of the national bird and alternate through the years have included Liberty and Peace as well as Stars and Stripes, but also more playful pairings May and Flower, Biscuits and Gravy, and the duo Cobbler and Gobbler. There was also Katie and Zack, named by the NTF chairman that year for his two children.
Turkeys from Iowa in 1983 were presented by Chuck Morgan and in 1988 by Pete Hermanson. Both NTF chairmen provided the turkeys to President Ronald Reagan. And should you be wondering why there is an alternate bird traveling to the event, that precaution for a backup bird is occasionally necessary. NTF 2008 chairman Paul Hill had planned to present Pecan to President George W. Bush, but the night before, the National Thanksgiving Turkey became ill, so the understudy Pumpkin strutted to upstage the intended star, although both were pardoned.
The formal name for the White House ceremony is the Presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey – only in recent times has it been referred to as the “turkey pardoning.” In 1989, President George H.W. Bush remarked that he was “pardoning” the National Thanksgiving Turkey, beginning a custom followed by presidents at the end of each presentation ceremony.
Recent custom continues to observe a pardoning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey and alternate. After the presentation, both turkeys are transported to a university into the care of poultry science veterinarians. The turkeys’ presence further promotes animal agriculture and the historic observance by the President noting the traditions of Thanksgiving, the opening of the holiday season and the role of agriculture among the nation’s many blessings. But the presidential family doesn’t entirely miss out on enjoying Thanksgiving turkey. The National Turkey Federation also presents two fully prepared “dressed” turkeys in place of the pardoned pair, packaged for the president and his family, who usually donate the birds to a Washington-area charity.