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

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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.

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