A Presidential Turkey Flap: Ronald Reagan and the Bonkers Birds

3 minute read

It was President Ronald Reagan’s first Thanksgiving in the White House, in 1981, when he stepped out toward the lawn where a special turkey was waiting for him. He sauntered confidently down the steps, swinging his arms into a full handshake with fowl farmer Hugh McClain — when, suddenly, the turkey began to flail its wings wildly, white feathers all aflutter. Ducking away from the bird like a chef dodging oil sparks from a stove-cooked meal, Reagan watched as handlers placated the finicky fowl.

Reagan’s turkey wasn’t visiting the White House to be pardoned: for all it knew, it could have been a future dinner, which explains its angst. In 1981, the official presidential pardon hadn’t ever been offered, though presidents had spared turkeys before. Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad is said to have begged his father to officially pardon a turkey headed for the Christmas diner table. President Kennedy informally pardoned the Turkey just days before he was assassinated. Many gift turkeys, it seems, were destined for the presidential Thanksgiving spread, but by the time of the Nixon administration, they appear to have been quietly sent to a grassy safe haven rather than the carving knife.

The president-and-turkey saga is about 150 years old. A Rhode Island poultry dealer named Horace Vose sent turkeys to the president from the time of the Ulyssses S. Grant administration until his death in 1913, according to the White House, and in the 1940s President Harry Truman started the tradition of using a National Turkey Federation and Poultry and Egg National Board gift turkey as a photo-op.

But back to Reagan. In 1984, it happened again: the White House turkey resisted the President’s overtures in front of television cameras, flapping away from the president and strutting toward the press. The turkey was actually headed for a petting farm in Virginia, according to an Associated Press report from the time, so it needn’t have been nervous. TIME commemorated Reagan’s fowl foibles in 1997 in a piece on the selection of the president’s turkey:

At 16 weeks, 10 candidates are selected–all toms (or males), because they’re bigger. Criteria: size, feathers, posture, temperament. The last is not insignificant: the 1984 turkey flapped its wings in President Reagan’s face.

The history of the official turkey pardon didn’t begin until 1989, when President George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s successor, excused the turkey from the Thanksgiving feast. The turkey looks “understandably nervous,” Bush said, according to the History Channel. (That was a line that his son, George W. Bush would reuse in his first White House turkey pardon in 2001.) Bush Sr. continued, speaking to reporters, “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”

President Obama’s turkey this year is from an Ohio farm and is enjoying the 25th year of turkey pardons. But the president doesn’t take the annual fowl forgiveness too gravely. “The office of the presidency is the most powerful position in the world, brings with it many awesome and solemn responsibilities,” President Obama joked last year. “This is not one of them.”

President Truman receives the Thanksgiving Turkey In Washington D.C. on Nov. 25, 1946.Keystone/Getty Images
President Kennedy is presented with the Thanksgivig Turkey on Nov. 19, 1963.
President Kennedy is presented with the Thanksgiving Turkey on Nov. 19, 1963.John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
President Ford reprieves a Thanksgiving turkey presented by the National Turkey Federation. November 20, 1975
President Ford reprieves a Thanksgiving turkey presented by the National Turkey Federation on Nov. 20, 1975 in Washington D.C.Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library
Pres Ronald Reagan w thanksgiving turkey and farmer John H
President Ronald Reagan with the Thanksgiving turkey on Nov. 1, 1985.Dirck HalsteadThe LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
US President Bill Clinton stands with the annual T
President Bill Clinton stands with the annual Thanksgiving turkey as his handler looks on during presentation ceremonies on Nov. 24, 1998 at the White House in Washington, D.C. Tim Sloan—AFP/Getty Images
US President George W. Bush(R) joined by turkey fa
President George W. Bush meets Liberty the turkey to receive the annual Thanksgiving Presidential Pardon in the Rose Garden of the White House on Nov. 19, 2001. Tim Sloan—AFP/Getty Images
President Obama Pardons Thanksgiving Turkey
President Barack Obama pardons a turkey named "Courage" as daughter Sasha looks on during an event to pardon the turkey at the White House on Nov. 25, 2009 in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong—Getty Images

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