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Pardon the Interruption

The president will spare the lives of two turkeys today — but to what end?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The head of a turkey is soft.

Not soft like plush or downy or silky. Soft like the underside of a lizard; like Play-Doh left out in the sun; like mashed potatoes stuffed into a plastic bag. Soft, in short, like something you might eat but wouldn’t want to, which is why you don’t. A standard Thanksgiving turkey bought from a grocery store comes with a long, stiff neck — severed and crammed for efficiency’s sake into its mostly empty chest cavity — but no head. My parents like to tell the story of how on one of my earliest Thanksgivings, I studied my mother’s handiwork for a while and then asked her where our dinner’s head was. She didn’t know. The truth, I can now confirm, is that it’s best not to.

Every year for many years — how many exactly is a matter of some debate: legendarily since Lincoln; apocryphally since Truman; regularly since Reagan; officially since Bush (H.W.) — the president of the United States of America has pardoned a turkey on the eve of Thanksgiving. Barack Obama will do this on Wednesday, his eighth and final round of avian clemency, giving the gift of post-November life to two Iowa-raised, 18-week-old, 40-ish-pound birds named Tater and Tot in a ceremony at the White House. From there, the turkeys will proceed to a new home at Virginia Tech, where a paddock has been christened Gobbler’s Rest in their honor. They will remain there until their dying day. We will return to this.

(Claire McNear)
(Claire McNear)

On Tuesday, the turkeys strutted around their room at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel, in a suite that on a normal Thanksgiving-season night might have gone for north of $500. In preparation for the guests, the floor had been partially covered with a tarp and wood shavings, but otherwise left unchanged. If this sounds absurd, I can only stress that it is dramatically more so. The Willard is the sort of stodgy, marble-bedecked D.C. institution where you check your pocket on the way out to see if someone slipped a cigar inside it, like a magician might a trick coin. The hotel’s all-American bona fides are well-established: The lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” were written there, as was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Throughout the ages,” the hotel’s website gushes, “no phrase has raised eyebrows like ‘I’m staying at the Willard.’”

So, this is where the turkeys stay. They march, slowly trailing the people around them, and like — or at least do not outwardly reject — the occasional light belly scratch. They snuffle when they breathe, like little pug dogs, their nose dongles waggling limply. It’s tough to guess a turkey’s gobble trigger — for some it’s clicking sounds; for others, singing. For Tater and Tot, it’s whistling that sets them off, launching them into cascades of throaty chuckles. They seem calm, all things considered, but the birds appear to know more than they’re letting on.

“They can tell something is up,” their minders insist.

Let’s contemplate, for a moment, the turkey. Your typical commercially available turkey — the one you’re going to dine on, probably, this week — is the broad-breasted white turkey. Here are some things the broad-breasted white turkey is good at: growing; feeding large groups of people; dulling the ache of your family members’ political opinions with a steady drip of tryptophan. Here are some things it’s bad at: self-reliance; procreation (your turkey was almost certainly conceived via artificial insemination); general life skills. The domesticated turkey is similar to its wild cousin in the same way that Winnie the Pooh is similar to a grizzly bear.

“Released in a wild or semi-wild environment, domestic turkeys showed no appreciation whatever for their escape from captivity,” Bangor Daily News outdoor columnist Bud Leavitt once remarked on failed attempts to repopulate the once-imperiled wild turkey population with the domesticated variety. “Most of them headed immediately for the nearest signs of their previously comfortable and civilized welfare state — often turning up along the first roads they encountered. Those that didn’t apparently succumbed to starvation or were picked off by pleasantly surprised predators.”

Tater and Tot are broad-breasted white turkeys. This is due to the fact that the annual presidential turkey pardon is less a mark of executive office benevolence than it is the centerpiece of a dazzling coup of special-interest lobbying, the scope of which a humble American can only really admire. The whole thing is put on by the National Turkey Federation, a conglomeration of growers, farmers, producers, and suppliers who have dedicated themselves to advancing the turkey cause. This cause can be thought of in two parts: (1) to encourage the people of this great nation to eat as much turkey as possible (11 months of the year), and (2) to get them to worship the hell out of the damn things (this month).

Year after year, the NTF takes it upon itself to rear a host of potential presidential turkeys, to select and transport the very best one(s), and to present it (or them) to the president. This year, a flock of 50 turkeys was hatched in Iowa for this purpose. Tater and Tot were the victors of a selection process consisting of heavy socialization with the resident farmer’s five young daughters as well as lessons for the birds to practice standing at a podium. 2016 marks — yes, I know, I’ll wait — the 69th installment of the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation.

(Claire McNear)
(Claire McNear)

Tater and Tot arrived Monday night, fresh from a 17-hour drive from Iowa in the back of a minivan driven by Peter Gruhl, the general manager of Hybrid Turkeys, a breeding and genetics company responsible for hatching many past presidential turkeys. Gruhl put down the rear seats and laid out fresh wood shavings for his cargo, stopping every four hours to give them food and water. They were so amiable, he said, that he thought about letting one ride shotgun. Like a puppy.

At the Willard, the turkeys are honored guests. A few stray shavings in the hall and the occasional gobble were the only indications that something was decidedly amiss. Gruhl settled into the room next door, which connects to the birds’ suite. For their two nights at the Willard, he checked on them every couple of hours, never using an alarm. “I just wake up,” he says.

On the entrance to the turkeys’ room, someone hung a Privacy Please sign.

This much is undeniable: The turkey pardon is a weird thing for the leader of the free world to do. Obama has acknowledged as much in past years. “It is a little puzzling that I do this every year,” he said in 2014. It is a strange simulacrum of one of the highest privileges of the presidency, the presidential pardon. Should Obama make no further additions, birds will have made up 20 percent of his total pardons during his time in office.

The tradition also represents an odd and vaguely sinister exercise in democratic choice. The president only actually pardons one bird at each year’s ceremony, so a public vote is held annually to determine which of the pair gets the honors. In reality, both birds are always spared — the second exists exclusively in case of illness, unruliness, or sudden balding of the first — but this fact is less than obvious from each November’s poll. This year, the prevailing takeaway among voters on Twitter seemed to be that the bird not chosen would be sent to the slaughterhouse. It’s safe to assume, then, that a substantial percentage of the thousands of voters who selected either Tater or Tot believed, fully, that they were shipping the other off to die.

Speaking of death: The remainder of these turkeys’ days, by the way, is not a large number. This is because the broad-breasted white turkey is a masterpiece of industrial design, hardwired to seamlessly execute its two directives: to grow (speedily, precipitously, breast-orientedly) and to be slaughtered. The Thanksgiving turkey is meant, basically, to develop into a good raw food and then be made into a good cooked one. If a turkey could talk, it would in all likelihood do one of two things: Approach your table, Restaurant at the End of the Universe–style, and ask politely on which parts of its body you would like to dine; or beg you to end its miserable life.

The point is that turkeys pardoned by the president of the United States don’t live long. Once liberated, they are sometimes placed on diets and exercise regimes, but there’s no getting around the simple fact that the lifespan of a standard Thanksgiving turkey is in the neighborhood of three years. Many pardonees make it much less than that, collapsing in on themselves in a swollen, sluggish, genetically freakish display of morbidity mere months after their White House ceremony. That both of last year’s pardoned turkeys, Honest and Abe, are still alive is such a feat that National Turkey Federation chairman John Reicks brags about it; they are joined by Cheese, a 2014 survivor (his companion, Mac, was not so lucky). But these are flukes: A swift, plump death is written into the domesticated turkey’s DNA. Whatever the verdict of the highest office in the land, there is no escaping that sentence. PETA protests every year, as much against the ceremony as the existence of the birds in the first place.

(Claire McNear)
(Claire McNear)

Tater and Tot were chosen for their beauty, and they are indeed very stately: Bright white with rear plumes of long, snowy feathers, they stalked across the Willard ballroom, in what Gruhl proclaimed was a turkey display of confidence, after their names were announced in an NTF press conference. The Willard’s executive chef approached, dressed in a white cook’s coat, and lightly prodded one before taking a picture with it.

It’s the heads, though — the heads. Their faces — their (I looked this up) wattles and snoods — are lumpy, warm, and soft to the touch, and if you get near enough, you’ll be encouraged to feel them. Back upstairs, Reicks gazes upon them admiringly, praising the patriotic mix of the turkeys’ red, white, and blue skin, the coloring of which is impressive in the way that a really spectacular bruise is impressive. It does not look like it should occur in nature. And, well, strictly speaking, it doesn’t.