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The tradition of presenting a live turkey to the commander in chief for Thanksgiving dates back to the 1940s, but it usually ended with the chosen bird served at the White House Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn't until 1987 that President Reagan introduced the idea of "pardoning" a bird for the first time. President George H. W. Bush would cement the tradition in 1989 and, every year since then, turkeys presented to the president have been allowed to live out their natural lives.

The practice of pardoning turkeys wasn't in strict practice during Harry S. Truman's presidency. Truman often indicated to reporters that the turkeys he was presented with were destined for the White House dinner table. (U.S. National Archives and Presidential Libraries)
President Dwight D. Eisenhower receives a turkey from the president of the National Turkey Federation. (U.S. National Archives and Presidential Libraries)
Only a few days before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy offered a reprieve to this lucky White House Thanksgiving turkey in 1963, and sent it back to the farm where it was raised. (National Archives and Records Administration)
President Lyndon Johnson receives a turkey in 1967 from Sen. Everett Dirksen.  (Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library)
President Richard Nixon receives the annual White House Thanksgiving turkey from the National Turkey Federation in 1969.
President Gerald Ford accepts the White House Thanksgiving Turkey during a ceremony in the Rose Garden in 1975. (National Archives and Records Administration)
The first president to specifically mention "pardoning" a turkey was Ronald Reagan, when he was presented with Charlie the turkey in 1987.  (National Archives and Records Adminstration)
President Bill Clinton pets a 45-pound turkey in the Rose Garden of the White House on Nov. 24, 1998. (NTF)
President Bush lets children from Campfire USA pet May, the National Thanksgiving Turkey, as he pardons the bird during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2007. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
President Obama gestures to indicate that his daughters Sasha and Malia would rather pass on touching "Cheese" the turkey during a ceremony at the White House on Nov. 26, 2014. (AP Images)
National Turkey Federation Chairman Jihad Douglas watches at right as President Barack Obama pardons National Thanksgiving Turkey Abe, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015. This is the 68th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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