The Official Turkey Pardon Ceremony Came In Part Because Of The Iran-Contra Scandal

Federal pardons in America are an executive power of any sitting U.S. president to grant. These can be forgiven to any individual convicted or charged with a federal crime. As The United States Department of Justice explains, pardons don't mean that the government is declaring an individual to be innocent. What it means is that civil restrictions, such as being able to run for office or vote, no longer apply to said individual. A president can also commute or reduce a prison sentence as well. 

As one can guess, this power can be subject to potential abuse and controversy. For example, former President Donald Trump drew criticism for his pardon of Steve Bannon and many others (via USA Today). And while pardoning people is serious business, sometimes presidents like to have fun with it, such as the annual tradition of pardoning a turkey. And in 2022, as President Joe Biden pardons turkeys Chocolate and Chip for Thanksgiving, some people might wonder where this tradition began (per The Washington Post). The annual turkey pardoning originates from an unlikely place: The Iran-Contra affair. 

A brief summary of the Iran-Contra affair

The Iran-Contra Affair happened back in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan's presidency. It involved the United States, Iran, and Nicaragua. High-ranking officials of the National Security Council were involved in a series of clandestine arms sales with Iran, igniting huge controversy within the government (via Britannica). Essentially, arms sales to Iran were done in order to fund the Contras, which was a right-wing rebel group in Nicaragua in the 1980s that used violence against the Sandinista National Liberation Front, a socialist party in the country that was also vying for government control. 

According to History, there was never a charge against Reagan for the entire fallout. Some notable officials involved with the affair, such as then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, were pardoned by President George H. W. Bush (who served as Reagan's vice-president and succeeded him to the office of the presidency). Reagan eventually admitted to conducting arms sales with Iran and that negotiating with terrorists was wrong. Despite this, Reagan is still considered one of the more beloved U.S. presidents of all time

How Iran-Contra and George H.W. Bush created turkey pardoning

So, what does modern-day turkey pardoning have to do with the Iran-Contra affair? A few things, actually. According to MPR news, turkey pardoning as a phrase stems back to 1987 and President Ronald Reagan. This was during the Iran-Contra controversy when the press frequently asked Reagan about the issue of pardoning notable people responsible for arms sales. Reagan would use turkey pardoning as a way of deflecting from these questions entirely. However, turkey pardoning was also performed by presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, but it hadn't been an official ceremony yet. 

It wasn't until 1989 that the tradition would be cemented in an annual ceremony at The White House. President George H.W. Bush was the one to start this as an annual tradition after pardoning a turkey. "Let me assure you and this fine tom turkey that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy," Bush said in a speech (via PBS). While turkey pardoning was a thing before Bush, the annual tradition of it was not formalized until his presidency.