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The president once again pardons turkeys who did nothing wrong, but why?

Two turkeys, named Liberty and Bell, who will attend the annual presidential pardon at the White House ahead of Thanksgiving, attend a news conference on Sunday at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin
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AP
Two turkeys, named Liberty and Bell, who will attend the annual presidential pardon at the White House ahead of Thanksgiving, attend a news conference on Sunday at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington.

Updated November 20, 2023 at 12:13 PM ET

Joe Biden is one year older Monday. At 81, he's the oldest president in U.S. history.

But some things apparently never get old, notably the strange tradition of presidential turkey pardons, which is happening again Monday as well.

"This is the 76th anniversary of this event, and I want you to know, I wasn't there for the first one," Biden said with a chuckle right before he spared "Liberty" and "Bell," this year's turkeys from a flock in Minnesota.

The tradition of giving presidents turkeys to eat did, in fact, start in 1947, but of pardoning them, that's a more complicated tale.

This has come to be a tradition that ironically features an American president sanctioning an event sponsored by a lobbying group, which advocates the opposite of what actually takes place at said event.

The president makes a few jokes and lets a turkey go free in what only became a formalized occurrence at the White House in the 1980s. But the turkey lobby's actual goal, as most likely know, is to get people to eat more turkey.

A long, strange history

This dance between the turkey lobby and presidents started in the 1940s, but back then, it was — a more honest — gifting of a bird for the president and his family to eat at Thanksgiving.

But death is a hard sell.

Most Americans probably don't know or think about how their food gets to their tables. They really care, as surveys have found, about how it tastes and how cheap it is.

Politicians know this.

Realizing the awkwardness of the whole situation — of publicly accepting a live turkey that was destined for his dinner table — John F. Kennedy broke the tradition in 1963.

"I think we'll just let this one grow," Kennedy said of the gobbling fowl with a sign around its neck that read, "Good eating, Mr. President."

He and succeeding presidents would realize, it's better to be seen as a turkey liberator rather than the one to publicly send ol' Giblet to the executioner.

There was a close call, though, during the George W. Bush administration when Barney, the president's plucky Scottish Terrier, almost silenced the gobble of that year's bird.

It took Bush hustling out of a national security meeting to call him off. And remember, this is the same dog that bit a reporter.

Good thing Biden's German Shepherds were kept far away from the event or there might have been a real ... fowl up.

Charlie, Caroline Kennedy's pet Welsh terrier, inspects a turkey presented to President Kennedy after a traditional Thanksgiving week ceremony at the White House in Washington, Nov. 19, 1963. President Kennedy "pardoned" the bird, sending it back to the farm. Charlie had the run of the grounds during the ceremony.
/ AP
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AP
Charlie, Caroline Kennedy's pet Welsh terrier, inspects a turkey presented to President Kennedy after a traditional Thanksgiving week ceremony at the White House in Washington, Nov. 19, 1963. President Kennedy "pardoned" the bird, sending it back to the farm. Charlie had the run of the grounds during the ceremony.

An expanding tradition ... for some reason

The birds get their royal treatment, their own hotel room and, of course, punny jokes. And despite the irony, pointed out by your author year after year, this event shows no signs of slowing down.

In fact, it only seems to be expanding.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer brought the tradition to Michigan in 2022, pardoning "Mitch E. Gander" (get it!?). And it's slated to happen again this year.

President Biden speaks as he pardons the national Thanksgiving turkeys during a ceremony at the White House on Monday.
Andrew Harnik / AP
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AP
President Biden speaks as he pardons the national Thanksgiving turkeys during a ceremony at the White House on Monday.

Alabama has apparently been doing this for decades. Oddly, the birds also, according to the Alabama Daily News, used to use the same names for the turkey every year for some reason — "Clyde" and "Henrietta."

That changed this year after an online poll of Alabamians picked Giblet and Puddin'.

"Today, by the powers vested in me as governor of the state of Alabama," Gov. Kay Ivey said at this year's event, "I hereby am granting a full pardon to Giblet and Puddin', so that they can spend their turkey day enjoying a meal of their own."

Let's just hope that meal isn't what everyone else eats for Thanksgiving.

It's become so embedded in the culture that a town in East Texas this year decided to join in on the strange tradition and let live a turkey by the name of ... Dolly Pardon.

"The turkey is named Dolly because she's a strong female role model," Lisa Mays-Gonzalez, Van Community Library director. "And it's a tribute to our Southern roots. And she is a very strong literacy advocate."

No word on whether the turkey can read.

Dolly is set to live out her days at the "Believe in Vegan" ranch.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.