This Is What The Presidential Turkey Pardon Is Actually All About

by Hannah Golden
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

There's one pair of guests you won't see staying at the Trump International Hotel in the nation's capital this Thanksgiving: Drumstick and Wishbone, the two turkeys awaiting their moment in the spotlight. This week, President Donald Trump will perform his first Presidential Turkey Pardon, one of America's weirdest traditions. And the birds have a pretty sweet setup.

The birds are in fact staying at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington D.C., where rooms range from $200 to $3,500 a night, according to The Hill. (Don't worry, taxpayers: The National Turkey Federation is reportedly footing this bill.) They'll be staying there while they await the pardoning ceremony on Tuesday in the White House's Rose Garden.

Though it sounds like a quintessential Trumpism to pardon a turkey, he can't take credit for it. It's an odd tradition dating back decades. There's a myth floating around that it all started in 1947 when the National Turkey Federation presented the first turkey to President Harry Truman. That's not quite correct, according to The White House Historical Association. The association says the tradition of pardoning turkeys began with President Abraham Lincoln back in December 1863, and it wasn't about Thanksgiving. The president granted clemency to a turkey (yes, that's an actual sentence) upon his son's request for Christmas, based on an account by White House reporter Noah Brooks, who had back then written, "a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life ... [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared."

Gifting turkeys to presidents during the holiday season became a standard tradition by the 1870s, the association says, but the turkeys often weren't eaten. While 1947 marked the first official presentation of a turkey to the president by the industry, the following year, Truman suggested they'd be enjoying the turkeys for Christmas dinner.

Some presidents had the birds sent off to various farms. The official tradition of setting the turkeys free, exempting them from the Thanksgiving dinner table, came in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was in office. It became an event of sorts, as much a humorous affair as anything. By 1989, President George H. W. Bush had solidified the "pardon" as a formal tradition. Apparently before a crowd that included a lot of animal rights protesters, Bush said, "But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy — he's granted a Presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here."

This year's turkeys, after enjoying a stay in a luxury hotel and being pardoned, will be sent off to live a life of avian leisure at "Gobbler's Rest" at Virginia Tech, joining last year's turkeys, Tater and Tot.

This year's turkeys, Drumstick and Wishbone, were raised in western Minnesota, according to the White House, under the supervision of the National Turkey Federation federation's chairman and five young women in a local chapter of 4-H, a national organization that develops children's skills by hands-on work, including raising livestock. From the sound of it, presidential pardon turkeys have a luxurious week leading up to Thanksgiving — and go through rigorous training to prepare for their moment of stardom. Previous turkeys, Time reported, have been given exposure to flash photography and groups of screaming children in training. (They were also treated to music by Vivaldi and John Mayer and had their own small mansion, though, so it's not all bad.) Per the White House's Twitter account, this year's turkey Wishbone actually prefers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, while Drumstick's favorite band is Journey (how do they know this?).

According to the White House announcement, in addition to pardoning the Wishbone and Drumstick, the Trump family will also donate two gifted turkeys to Martha's Table, a Washington D.C. charity.