Chief executives have been known to grant presidential pardons to some real turkeys, and George Bush is no exception. Sometime before Thanksgiving, he's expected to grant another permanent stay of execution -- this time to a big old bird from Raeford, N.C.
You know the drill: The National Turkey Federation presents a plump, white-feathered fowl in a Rose Garden ceremony (this will be the 43rd) and the president, knowing people don't like to think about where their Thanksgiving dinner comes from, announces that this turkey won't end up breast side up on a platter; this turkey will live out its life on a nearby farm.
Where are all those presidential turkeys? Gobbling away together in idyllic retirement somewhere?
Not on your bippy. For starters, between the new people at the White House and the new people at the Turkey Federation, no one seems to even know where Hawaiian Charlie, the 1987 bird presented to President Reagan, went.
Bob Johnson, owner of Pet Farm Park in Vienna, vaguely remembers taking in R.J. (short for Robust Juicy) after his 1984 White House visit. "He was robust all right. He was so fat that he couldn't even walk. He died before Christmas. I mean, he was really a chunko!"
"Ben and Wilfred were here for a good bit of time," recalls Kip Cortelyou, manager of Evans Farm Inn in McLean. Ben was the 1986 bird and Wilfred the 1985 titleholder.
But both have gone to the big coop in the sky, Cortelyou says. "They live three, maybe four years at best. We get them at 50 pounds, and they are very mature, very huge birds."
In fact, we'll blow the lid off this whole scam: The White House birds can't be pardoned because they're not intended to be eaten in the first place. Turkeys are sent to market at about 16 weeks, or 30 pounds max, feathers and all; the White House turkeys are generally breeding stock, having reached sexual maturity at about 40 weeks, according to a turkey spokesman. (So maybe being sent to sit around some farm with a bunch of other toms isn't a totally swell deal either, but that's another story.)
Cortelyou was also given the 1988 birds (there's always a backup bird too, in case the No. 1 gets sick or cranky before the ceremony), but one died of natural causes before Christmas and the other was stolen soon after. That was the year the federation stopped naming the turkeys. "These birds are production animals, and naming them attaches human emotions to them and people think they are pets," says Eddie Aldrete, federation spokesman, acknowledging an attempt to avoid pressure from vegetarian groups.
The 1989 birds, however, were named upon their arrival at Kidwell Farm at Frying Pan Park in Reston. And we are relieved to report that George and Dan (above) are still on display to this day -- though they have put on weight.