George Bush Senior was the first President to officially pardon a turkey with the words: ‘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.’ And so the actual tradition took hold.
So including this year’s turkey that is 25 birds saved from the table, provided Barack Obama doesn’t have a moment of PR madness and demand the bird be taken around the back of the White House and put to the knife. Meaning only 11% of the possible turkeys since George Washington’s Presidency have been saved.
The statistic only gets slightly better when you include the unofficially pardoned turkeys. Abraham Lincoln let a Christmas turkey live after his son Tad pleaded for his life (Lincoln only introduced Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863.) In 1963 when John F Kennedy was presented with a turkey wearing a sign that read: ‘Good Eatin' Mr. President’, Kennedy said, ‘Let's just keep him.’ Then in 1987, Ronald Reagan deflected questions about pardoning Oliver North in the Iran-Contra case by joking about pardoning that years Thanksgiving turkey.
So although the custom will no doubt continue in the future, this good news story has a long way to go before the statistics catch up with the merciful misconception of the commonly held belief.