Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving pretty soon and we will all see a news item that has the President pardoning a turkey and saving him from death. This is supposedly a grand American tradition but in fact, it’s pretty new. Harry Truman was the first president to receive a bird from the National Turkey Foundation. It was a Christmas present, not a Thanksgiving item, and the Trumans ate it. There’s no record of Eisenhower and turkeys but Kennedy got one before Thanksgiving, 1963, which he did not live to celebrate. Kennedy told the press that he wouldn’t eat the turkey, “It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.” This seems to begin a tradition of the Presidential turkey not being eaten but there was no official pardon yet. During the Iran-Contra affair, Reagan joked about pardoning certain administration criminals and mentioned the turkey. His vice-president was listening and, in 1989, George H.W.Bush became the first president to officially pardon the Thanksgiving turkey. (That photo of Ford and the turkey? He didn’t grant it a pardon no matter what the caption says.)
The President of the United States does have certain pardon powers that are usually exercised in the hours directly before his term of office ends, so that he doesn’t have to face criticism for letting criminals go free. The last president to pardon or commute a death sentence was Eisenhower who commuted the military court death sentence of Maurice Shick to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole.
Death sentences are what it’s all about, of course. The turkey pardon is a parody of capital punishment, a big joke in the last advanced nation on earth that still executes people. The turkey pardon is silly and arbitrary and so is capital punishment. In 2002 President George W. Bush became the first president to pardon a female turkey. No one mentioned Karla Faye Tucker.