Theater critic

In theater, the definition of a “turkey” is a disaster that can’t be saved. Does that apply to the perpetually peculiar presidential Thanksgiving turkey pardoning? Can Donald Trump do whimsy?

Performing America’s pre-dinner theater demands it, topped with a dollop of sincerity. Weird as it is, there is reassurance in routine — as travel and grocery shopping logistics pile up, you sort of want to glance at this novelty act and hear healing words for just a moment — and on Tuesday in the Rose Garden, the president played the role of hardball politician softening for the week’s holiday pretty much by the book. He joshed about the annual event’s brand-new “reality show” wrinkle of public voting between two turkeys named Peas and Carrots to see which one gets, you might say, the embrace.

“The winner of this vote was decided by a fair and open election conducted on the White House website,” the president announced as the first lady looked on. “This was a fair election. Unfortunately, Carrots refused to concede and demanded a recount, and we’re still fighting with Carrots.”

Democrats might not honor these pardons, Trump warned. Watch out for a reversal by that dastardly Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, he said, as another court was reversing his administration’s asylum policy.

This elbow in the ribs had a sharp Trumpian edge but fits within the established script for turkey pardoning, which, in this 2018 edition, lasted a fleet eight minutes. Beltway quips, some earnest platitudes (“All joking aside, this is a time for Americans to unite together in a spirit of love, understanding, unity and joy as one very proud American family”), then the main course. “I hereby grant you a full pardon,” the president said, stepping toward the turkey named Peas as the assembled crowd dutifully laughed.

The online vote barely made a ripple in this benign sideshow. (It may be best viewed as a kids’ event; Trump went on about its roots in Tad Lincoln’s pleading to his father, Abraham, to spare a turkey’s life.) Yet absurdity inevitably flavors everything touching this tongue-in-cheek melodrama of “saved” turkeys. Peas, interested voters learned in bios posted on the White House website, has a “gobble style” categorized as “boisterous,” while the gobble of Carrots is rated “strong and confident.” Peas likes Brad Paisley. Carrots digs Elvis.


President Trump pardons Peas the turkey during the presentation of the National Thanksgiving turkey at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Carrots enjoys yoga and M&Ms. Peas prefers popcorn and watching airplanes. That is plenty of information to vote on.

These birds are groomed for the limelight, and they are even named according to a theatrical custom: What do actors in crowd scenes traditionally murmur to replicate a general hubbub? “Peas and carrots, peas and carrots.” The president’s explanation for the name was funnier because it was so cryptic: “I am pleased to announce that today’s lucky bird and guest of honor is named Peas, along with his alternate, named Carrots,” he said, adding, “The children will understand that.”

Peas and Carrots practiced their roles in South Dakota, so they would be seasoned performers prepared for Washington’s pressure-cooker stage. Before their White House gig, they lodged in style at the Willard Hotel.

“Extremely lucky birds,” Trump noted.

All this taps into the something deeply loony that hangs on Thanksgiving’s beak like a snood. Thanksgiving inspired the legendary “WKRP in Cincinnati” episode “Turkeys Away,” with the radio station promoting itself by generously dropping free live turkeys onto startled Ohioans from a helicopter. Thanksgiving gave us the brilliantly daffy “Turkey Lurkey Time” dance in the 1969 musical “Promises, Promises” (thank you, Donna McKechnie), plus a thread in “West Wing” when President Bartlet wondered whether pardoning birds would make him seem “soft on turkeys.”

Say it like Spike Lee did in “She’s Gotta Have It”: “Is this your first turkey?”

David Mamet’s presidential farce “November” has never been professionally staged in Washington — that’s how wildly politically incorrect it is — though it ran for half an election year on Broadway in 2008 with Nathan Lane as a cocksure, bumbling, unpopular and unapologetic incumbent desperate to raise funds for a reelection campaign. Where can he get money? Maybe, just maybe, through the turkey pardoning. Shake down the poultry industry for, say, $200 million, or else tell the public that what really happened with the Pilgrims and the Indians involved another food: tuna.

What happens to Mamet’s turkeys is a riot, and it’s effortless comedy because it mines the zany premise we know to be true. Pardoning a turkey?

“What did it do?” the “November” president asks in a rare innocent moment.

The play, with its conflicts about same-sex marriage and border walls, ends with reconciliation all around, for comedy resolves with marriages and with kingdoms made whole. That’s the intended gesture with this slight, and slightly ham-handed, nugget of Americana. “Thanksgiving is a time of great American traditions, and today we continue a very special one when a lucky turkey gets a presidential pardon,” Trump said, pretty much as presidents do. Then, the personal touch: “That turkey is so lucky. I’ve never seen such a beautiful turkey.”

It doesn’t bear scrutiny, but so what? Grant a pardon. It’s no time to throw away even a morsel of comfort food.