"Is he sedated?" asked the president under his breath. "No? He's not?"
It was such an insensitive query. The president would have appeared sedated too if he had been selectively bred for abundant meat without regard for brains. Speaking hypothetically.
The president's muffled question came toward the end of the annual White House turkey event, the Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, a peculiarly durable, vaguely hilarious ritual dating back something like 900 years in which the National Turkey Federation presents a big bird to the president and the press watches closely for a Breaking Metaphor.
There is always a main turkey and a backup turkey, and they always stay the previous night at the Hotel Washington. Last year a TV crew filmed a hotel employee handing a room key to the celebrity turkey, and it would have been perfectly amusing except, in the words of turkey federation Executive Vice President Stuart Proctor, "the bird let loose right on the rug. A 50-pound bird. It wasn't pretty."
So there is always an edge to this event, no matter how staged. President Bush stepped into the Rose Garden and wasted no time getting to this year's official turkey joke. "After everything that's been going on in Washington these past few months, it's great to finally be sharing the stage with someone I can call a turkey, and get away with it," he said to brief laughter.
Sticking to formula, the president announced that the bird would get a presidential pardon, and would live out its days at a petting farm for children. This was a crucial point, since the front three rows at the turkey event were taken up by impressionable young children, who presumably will go on thinking that the turkey they will eat at Thanksgiving was raised under plastic in the meat department of the grocery store.
As the president spoke, the celebrity turkey lingered quietly in a cage a few feet away. It looked huge in there, a wad of feathers, White House white. (Aren't they supposed to have colored plumage? Or is that peacocks?)
The president managed in a few quick sentences to tie together themes of peace and war, the need to remember the importance of family, of not taking our blessings for granted, of sharing what we have; he mentioned the hostages and the soldiers in the Persian Gulf region. "Perhaps their sacrifice will make those of us at home this Thanksgiving Day reflect even more deeply, so that when we give thanks for our health, we will think of those imprisoned by pain or illness or despair. And when we give thanks for our freedom, we will think of those who live in darkness or tyranny."
The conclusion of the remarks was punctuated by a ruffling sound. The onlookers turned to see a man in a suit wrestling with what appeared from a distance to be a small altocumulus cloud. The bird was named Jim. The man was Eddie Aldrete, a turkey foundation employee, and to hoist the turkey to the turkey presentation table he was using a method he had learned only hours before: Grab the far wing and the near thigh, and lift. It was an indelicate demonstration but with a few huffs Aldrete managed to get the bird in place. "He's so big and I'm not used to handling him," Aldrete said later, a feather poking from his jacket.
Jim didn't move. The 62-pound tom hunkered slightly in what might anthropomorphically be described as humility. His small head was covered with knurls and scales; for ears he had nothing but a couple of holes. He was a fat thing. How fat? So fat his wattles had wattles. To carve him you'd need a chain saw, to move him you'd need that vehicle that rolls the space shuttle to the launching pad. If this bird got in Iraqi hands, the embargo would be ruined.
The president invited several children to the front to pet the bird. "Don't scare him. Just a touch," said the chief. The cameras rolled. The bird didn't seem fazed. Domestication has bred the caution out of these creatures; they don't get out of the rain, and they probably think lawn mowers are neat. The president continued to smoothly work his preteen crowd, asking questions about homework -- one minute he's Churchill, the next Art Linkletter. To one child he said, "Are you making a face at me or the turkey?"
Then it was back to work. The president left before anyone could ask him questions, like maybe what the difference is between sweet potatoes and yams, or how many lima beans you have to add to corn before you've got succotash.
The turkey went back in the cage. The interspecies ritual was complete. Through constant repetition, the re-creation of the past in precisely the same moves, mostly the same words, man momentarily lifts from himself the burden of time, the gnawing pain of mortality. This is a constant; only the turkey changes.