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