The Presidential Turkey Pardon, the Most Awkward Tradition in American Politics

The tradition of presenting a turkey to the president began with Harry Truman in 1947, but the annual turkey pardon began with a joke Ronald Reagan made in response to a question about whether he’d pardon Oliver North, who had not yet been tried for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. His successor, George H.W. Bush, instituted the pardon as a permanent annual tradition in 1989, thus requiring that every year thereafter, the leader of the free world submits to an awkward, much-photographed moment with a large and often resistant bird. As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, here’s a look back at some of the most memorable of those encounters, from Kennedy’s apprehensive petting to George W. Bush’s steady, knowing gaze into his turkey’s eyes.

Above, National Turkey Federation president John Hendricks attempts to hang on to the live turkey that he brought to the White House in Washington on Friday, Nov. 17, 1984, while Ronald Reagan gets a face full of feathers.

AP Photos

The Greatest Terrorist Threat


In The Arena

How to stop nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands.

Sam Nunn is a former U.S. senator.  

Richard Lugar is a former U.S. senator.  

Des Browne is a former UK secretary of state for defence. All three serve on the Board of Directors of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Let there be no doubt: If the radical jihadists responsible for the latest assault on innocents in Paris get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, they will not hesitate to use them. There is no limit to the horrible acts terrorists will carry out in pursuit of their ideological agenda. The best way to stop a WMD attack is to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear materials in the first place.

If terrorists were able to detonate a crude nuclear weapon built with materials they stole or bought on the black market, the catastrophic consequences could easily include the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, the wide-scale destruction of property, the disruption of global commerce and restrictions on civil liberties worldwide. Citizens and leaders alike would be left to ask: “What could we have done, and what should we have done, to prevent it?”

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The good news is that leaders and governments have been focused on this concern for a number of years and can point to progress in better securing and removing some of the world’s most dangerous nuclear material—the highly enriched uranium and plutonium that could be used to build a bomb—scattered across the globe. Thanks to work that began in the early 1990s and has intensified through biennial Nuclear Security Summits since 2010, we’ve reduced the number of countries possessing nuclear materials from 52 in 1992 to 24 today.

Yet as leaders prepare for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., in March 2016, there is still ample cause for concern. Today, more than 1,800 metric tons of weapons-usable materials remain stored in countries around the world, some of it still too poorly secured and vulnerable to theft. A recent report on a sting in southeast Europe exposed another chilling reality: a black market in nuclear materials. Compounding the threat is the fact that it doesn’t take much material to build a bomb and the technical know-how needed to do it is more accessible than ever.

We also know that, despite leaders’ efforts, there is still no effective global system in place for how all weapons-usable materials should be secured. Implementation of existing international guidelines remains far from universal, and no mechanism exists for holding countries accountable for lax security at nuclear facilities. Moreover, even those mechanisms that do exist apply almost exclusively to a small fraction of all weapons-usable nuclear materials—the 17 percent used for peaceful, civilian applications. The remaining 83 percent are commonly characterized as “military materials” and are therefore outside the scope of current international security standards and mechanisms.

As recent security breaches at military facilities in the United States and elsewhere have made clear, lax regulation on military materials is incredibly dangerous. Just consider the case of the 82-year-old nun and her fellow peace activists who broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 2012. Known as the “nuclear Fort Knox,” the Y-12 facility is operated by the Department of Energy and houses thousands of kilograms of highly enriched uranium. These activists spent nearly 1½ hours on the facility compound before a single guard noticed and arrested them for trespassing. Next time the intruders might not be so harmless.

Radiological materials, such as those used in medical equipment and scientific research, pose another largely unaddressed threat. These are materials that could be used to build a “dirty bomb” that would not kill thousands but could spread radioactive materials and contaminate and deny access to major portions of one of the world’s great cities or ports, causing billions of dollars in damage and sowing terror. Already, there are claims that Islamic State extremists may have stolen enough material to build one of these bombs.

As the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit approaches, we applaud leaders for engaging on the threat and for taking the steps they have already taken to remove and secure vulnerable materials, but we have a long way to go.

In addition to minimizing and eliminating these dangerous materials and the number of facilities where they are located, leaders must work to build a strengthened global security system. The system should cover all nuclear materials, including “military materials,” and apply international standards, best practices and measures that build confidence in the effectiveness of each state’s materials security. States also should work to:

  • Secure all nuclear materials and facilities to the highest standards, including screening personnel with access to sensitive materials and facilities; and strengthen tools to prevent and detect the trafficking of nuclear materials across borders.
  • Ensure accountability through independent oversight and build a strong security culture that includes peer reviews, best practice exchanges and realistic security exercises and assessments.
  • Strengthen international cooperation on nuclear security, which should include reviving cooperation between the United States and Russia and enhancing intelligence and law enforcement cooperation.

Leaders also must do more to counter the dirty bomb threat. Last year, 23 countries at the Nuclear Security Summit agreed to secure their most dangerous radiological materials. Next March, additional countries should join the pledge. In addition, hospitals should replace blood irradiators that use the most dangerous material, cesium-137, with now available alternative technologies that achieve equivalent medical outcomes.

Now, as we mourn the victims of the Paris attacks and as France and its allies avenge their loss, we call on world leaders to dramatically step up efforts to tighten security around the dangerous materials needed to build weapons of mass destruction and disruption. In the face of escalating threats, leaders have an obligation to their citizens, to their neighbors, and to the wider global community to do all that they can to prevent catastrophe.

The Hidden Hard-line Side of George H.W. Bush

In late 1990, after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in November giving a hard deadline for Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait by mid-January, President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, mulled over different last-minute diplomatic possibilities. It had been four months since Iraqi tanks had rolled into its resource-rich neighbor, angling to seize control of oil facilities after a series of disputes over drilling and price changes. One of the possibilities Baker and Bush considered was a face-to-face session between Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The argument, as Bush put it, was that “we need to have, for domestic consumption in the United States, a high level meeting where Saddam Hussein is told exactly how strongly we feel about this.” The president needed to appeal to the American public as his administration teetered on the edge of an offensive that would become the Gulf War.

Around Christmas that year, Bush became deeply disturbed by an Amnesty International report on the brutalities of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. He cited it frequently, offering it as evidence in support of his moral case for war. The Right Reverend Edmond Browning, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, called at the White House to urge peace. An unusually passionate president handed Browning a copy of the Amnesty International report, then peppered the bishop with questions. In light of such systemic terror, “Now what do we do about peace?” Bush asked. “How do we handle it when these people are being raped?” His growing determination led him to one of his rare open avowals of the price he was willing to pay to remove Saddam from Kuwait. “If I don’t get the votes” in Congress for war, Bush remarked to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates one day in the Oval Office, “I’m going to do it anyway. And if I get impeached, so be it.”

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It’s conventional wisdom today that George W. Bush shoved aside doubt and debate in pursuit of war with Iraq in 2002 and 2003. In a commonly accepted narrative, observers have long held that George H.W. Bush would have been more measured, less driven by gut and gut alone.

But, after working through the first of Bush’s tapes and diaries from the time period for my book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, it’s become clear to me that George H.W. Bush was emotionally and morally attached to the idea of the Gulf War in the way that his son was to be about Iraq a decade later—even to the point of risking impeachment absent the approval of Congress.

To a degree he kept hidden from many of his closest advisers, before whom he largely maintained a mask of command, Bush 41, in private, fretted that Congress might impeach him a) if he launched full-scale military operations in the absence of congressional approval and b) if the ensuing war went badly. Bush alluded to this possibility in his presidential diary on five occasions, ranging from Wednesday, December 12, 1990, to Sunday, January 13, 1991. But even given this threat, he was confident of the rightness of his course.

In late November 1990, mulling a scenario in which he lacked an explicit congressional resolution, Bush dictated: “It is only the United States that can do what needs to be done. I still hope against hope that Saddam will get the message; but if he doesn’t, we’ve got to take this action; and if it works in a few days, and he gives up, or is killed, or gets out, Congress will say, ‘Attaboy, we did it, wonderful job; wasn’t it great we stayed together.’ If it drags out and there are high casualties, I will be history; but no problem—sometimes in life you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

By musing that he could be “history” if the worst happened, Bush might just have meant that he risked losing reelection in 1992. Two weeks later, though, he explicitly expressed thoughts about impeachment. “I’m convinced that they’ll support us—the Congress—provided it’s fast and surgical,” Bush told his diary on Wednesday, December 12. “But if it’s drawn out and long, well then you’ll have all the hand wringers saying, ‘They shouldn’t have done it,’ and they’ll be after my neck on, perhaps, impeachment for violating the Constitution.” Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye warned Bush that an American military defeat without congressional authorization would likely cost him the presidency. “If you’re wrong about this,” Inouye told Bush, “you are going to be impeached by the Congress.”

At a Thursday, December 20, 1990, meeting with a Democratic delegation from the Senate, the mood was pessimistic. “What do you want Congress to do?” Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, then a Democrat, asked the president.

“Come in and pass a resolution auth[orizing the] president to implement U.N. resolutions,” Bush replied. The response in the room was unenthusiastic. Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, pleaded for “a year” to let sanctions work. Others discouraged sending up a resolution on force, contending that the votes for “overwhelming support” did not exist and any kind of divisive fight would “make S[addam] H[ussein] a hero.” Bush understood that well, which was why he wanted to make sure that a resolution, if submitted for approval, succeeded. If it didn’t, well, that was too bad. “Congress is in a turmoil, and I am more determined than ever to do what I have to do,” Bush told his diary on Friday, January 4, 1991. “If they are not going to bite the bullet, I am. They can file impeachment papers if they want to.” Bush was certain enough about his mission—the ejection of Saddam from Kuwait—that he was willing to risk everything for it.

And then, in New York and around the world, Baker fought for U.N. Security Council Resolution 678, which set a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Saddam to withdraw his forces from Kuwait. The measure passed by a 12 to 2 vote. It was the first such authorization of force since the Korean War 40 years before.