Until 1989 turkeys came to the White House to be eaten, not pardoned
Since before the days of Harry Truman, it was a presidential Thanksgiving tradition: a plump bird was presented to the President himself at the White House every year. Every year, the President happily accepted. From 1873 through 1913, these birds even came from the same Rhode Island farm. It became a national tradition in Truman's days. Since then, each President, spanning more than 50 years, delighted at the annual photo op along with fans of the traditions of the nation's highest office.
Until 1989, that is, when President George H.W. Bush decided Tom Turkey looked a little nervous.
It was an honor for a turkey farm to be the one to provide the White House with its annual dinner. In the 1920s, the bird presented to President Warren G. Harding traveled the country in a specially-constructed battleship turkey crate. Subsequent Presidents were sent turkeys from farms and civic groups from across the country. Places like the Minnesota Arrowhead Association, the Poultry and Egg National Board, and the National Turkey Federation were only too eager to send the Presidential mansion their best champion turkeys.
Only sporadically did Presidents pardon their turkeys before President Bush did in 1989, and it never became the tradition as we know it today. As the President received the annual gift, shouts from picketing animal rights activists could be heard nearby. Bush, acknowledging the bird looked a little nervous gave a pardon so complete it is echoed every year since:
"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."
Other Presidents have spared their turkeys. On Nov. 18, 1963, President Kennedy was the first to spare a turkey's life. It was a spontaneous act. Nixon spared a few of his. Rosalyn Carter had all the Carter's turkeys sent to a petting zoo, as did Ronald Reagan. But it was Reagan who first used the term "pardon" to spare the life of the turkey. At the time, the media was speculating over whether or not the President would issue a pardon for Col. Oliver North for his role in the Iran-Contra Affair. Reagan, with his trademark wit, used the term to deflect questions about the incident.