America is a wonderful place.

Where else would a head of state set aside time, once a year, for a photo opportunity that invites -- no, positively begs -- the press corps to make "turkey" jokes at his expense?

"You said the turkey will be in the Rose Garden today?" a reporter asked presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater during yesterday's morning briefing about the president's schedule.

"The turkey's here," responded Fitzwater.

To which, as inevitably as night follows day, came the reply, "As well as in the Cabinet room and the Oval Office."

The event is the annual "presentation of the traditional turkey," which takes place, um, under the wing of the National Turkey Federation. Presidents have taken time out to beam at a humongous Thanksgiving bird for nearly 40 years, except for the last two of Jimmy Carter's presidency, when no one saw much humor, even in turkeys.

Here is what happens at the presentation:

Minutes before it is scheduled to begin, reporters and photographers are summoned out of the press room and into the Rose Garden. Several of these grown men and women, who have been denied the chance to ask President Reagan much of anything for days on end, break into a trot in hopes of beating their peers to the front row of the pack that assembles behind a rope.

Paces away -- few enough to allow for good photographs, but just enough to ensure maximum difficulty in oral communication -- stand two couples, a U.S. senator and a small table covered in green felt. The couples are National Turkey Federation President Herman Mason and his wife Louise, and National Turkey Federation Executive Vice President Lew Walts and his wife Frankie. The senator is Virginia's John Warner (R), borne here by his pride in Virginia's turkey farmers, for the bird in question was raised by Mason in Hinton, Va.

Out comes the turkey in the hands of a White House employe wearing work clothes and a wary expression. A Broadbreasted White Turkey weighing 55 pounds, it is improbably named Hawaiian Charlie, after the venue of the NTF's 50th anniversary convention, which takes place in January, and the NTF's first president, one Charles Wampler.

Any spectator lured by the name into expectations of meeting a party-animal sort of turkey is bound for disappointment: Turkeys of years past have fallen at many different points on the spectrum from docile to fierce, but Hawaiian Charlie, once placed on the table, proves nearly comatose.

The ladies and gentlemen of the press begin shouting.

"Is that turkey sedated?" "Did that turkey just say no?"

Allegations of drug use are hotly denied.

"How long has that turkey been dead?"

Enter the leader of the free world, greeting the group at the table and pantomiming his admiration for his avian guest.

Gazing next into the middle distance -- beyond the head of the still turkey, but short of where the press corps is gnashing its collective teeth -- the president proceeds with one of his unnerving quasi-question-and-answer-sessions, in which he seems both willing and affronted to find dozens of people in his garden clamoring to know stuff.

Questions about Cuban detainees who have rioted in prisons in Louisiana and Atlanta draw all but inaudible allusions to action by the attorney general. A question about the forthcoming summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev yields only a trademark quip. Questions about the hot rumor of the hour -- that Reagan will pardon Lt. Col. Oliver North and former national security adviser John Poindexter over the Thanksgiving holiday -- draw little more:

"Sam, that's a question no one can answer," the president hollers inexplicably in response to ABC's Sam Donaldson.

"You can answer it, sir," shout several reporters.

Can, but won't. The turkey, he observes, will be pardoned, not flown to Santa Barbara, Calif., for Thanksgiving dinner.

"Why do I feel I'm covering the waning months?" mutters one TV correspondent.

At this point, one of the president's visitors reaches beneath Charlie's splendid white chest and performs a gesture that can only be described as goosing the turkey.

The bird responds by standing and strutting once, giving a magnificent flourish of feathers.

Shutters click. The president nods, waves, retreats inside.

And the turkey?

"He'll be returned to the farm and turned loose -- to do what he wants to do," says Mason.