At precisely 1:54 p.m. yesterday, President Clinton stepped into the White House Rose Garden and "pardoned" a 50-pound turkey named Harry.

Schoolchildren from the Boys and Girls Club of Washington beamed. Camera shutters fluttered like noisy butterflies. The turkey himself seemed indifferent.

The Leader of the Free World has been doing this pardon thing since the Truman administration. It's not like the turkey committed a crime; tradition simply demands that the president stroke the bird's feathers, make a few jokes about Washington having its share of turkeys, too, and send the bird on its way.

According to the 52-year-old ritual, the president spares the life of one turkey, which then gets to live out its days at a park in Herndon because . . . well, it's not exactly clear why. If nothing else, the event is guaranteed to produce a lot of pun-filled newspaper stories (suggested headline for this story: "Lame Duck Pardons Live Turkey") and cheerful sound bites to round out the day's mayhem, weather and sports.

May we be so bold as to suggest that the symbolism here is all wrong? Americans love to eat turkeys, not pet them. Turkey consumption has been going up, up and up in this great nation for years.

That's something to celebrate. It has been a triumph of science, technology, clever marketing and diet-consciousness, four things Americans are good at.

Feast your eyes on these stats: Per-capita consumption of turkey, according to the USDA, has grown from 7.9 pounds in 1976 to just over 18 pounds last year, a 128 percent increase. About half of all those pounds were once consumed around Thanksgiving and Christmas; now the year-end holiday season accounts for only about a third of turkey consumption, says the National Turkey Federation.

Rising turkey consumption is, in part, a reflection of the turkey industry's increased skill at breeding, raising and preparing turkeys, says R. Michael Hulet, an associate professor of poultry science at Penn State University.

A couple of decades ago, Hulet says, the average male turkey weighed about 28 pounds by the time it was ready to meet the Grim Processor. Now, thanks to improved genetic selection, disease control and nutrition, the average tom checks in at about 40 pounds. They're so enormous, in fact, that toms tend to topple off the hens before they can, y'know, complete The Act, which, as a USDA paper points out, "tends to affect the libido of the toms, and fertility suffers."

Well, darn right! In any case, this means that almost all commercially raised turkeys are conceived through artificial insemination.

Since no one wants to cook a 40-pound turkey, the other major innovation in the turkey world over the past decade or so has been the creation of processed turkey meats, says Sherrie Rosenblatt of the NTF.

We're talking about smoked turkey meat at the deli counter. Honey-roasted turkey. "Southwestern" turkey. Turkey ham. Turkey baloney. Turkey salami. Turkey burgers. Turkey sausages. Turkey bacon. Turkey jerky. Turkey pastrami ("I had some of that the other day," says Hulet. "It was delicious."). Also, something called turkey roll.

The introduction of many of these products conveniently coincided with the baby boom generation's diet obsessions. Millions of health-conscious consumers flocked to this low-fat, low-cal, no-hormone stuff starting in the 1980s, Rosenblatt says.

Though, of course, not everyone is pleased by these trends. Even as Harry was getting a reprieve yesterday, a handful of protesters from United Poultry Concerns, a Washington-area group, were milling around outside the White House to raise compassion for put-upon birds everywhere. Founder Karen Davis held one end of a banner that got to the heart of the matter: "Turkeys: Meet One, Don't Eat One."

Such an earnest, if losing cause--some 45 million turkeys are going down this Thanksgiving--brought to mind an inspired satire of recent vintage. A couple of years ago on "Saturday Night Live," singer Sarah McLachlan sang a duet with "feminist stand-up comic Cinder Calhoun" (Ana Gasteyer) called "Basted in Blood," decrying "the turkey holocaust":

Twenty-million noble birds

Slaughtered every fall

Ain't no difference 'tween

Hitler, Stalin

And the folks at Butterball

So set your tables, America

From Birmingham to Branson

But when you carve that turkey

You're a finger-lickin' Charlie Manson

Enjoy your pumpkin pie,

Your buttery Idaho spud

Grandma's chestnut stuffing

And a turkey basted in blood.

In the same spirit, it seems anti-symbolic to pardon just one turkey (actually, there's a backup turkey that gets a free pass, too). Given our national appetite for turkey meat in its ever-expanding forms, it might be more appropriate for the president to whack the turkey's head off, although we admit this probably wouldn't make the right kind of TV pictures.

So here's what we propose: Same Rose Garden photo op. Same adorable schoolkids. Same speech: "We as a people and as a nation have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving," etc. But at the end, the president could open his mouth and take a nice big bite of turkey pastrami sandwich.