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Fowl Play

More hollow symbolism at the White House

It's an annual tradition: Just prior to Thanksgiving, the President of the United States is presented with a turkey during a Rose Garden ceremony. After the requisite jokes, the president "pardons" the bird. The spin has already begun.

The turkey has committed no crime. What it has received, in fact, is a presidentially ordained career change after being diverted from its typical destination of a dinner plate. According to the White House, the bird enjoys one hour's free range in the Rose Garden; it also enjoys face-time with the President and a gaggle of media before "retiring" to do whatever caged birds do.

This event is hardly about saving turkeys, despite its folksy appeal or its intent to show our leader as a latter-day St. Francis of Assisi. The whole spectacle is produced with the help of Big Turkey: the National Turkey Federation, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group for large-scale turkey growers. Those growers, the federation proudly declares, have magnanimously given presidents turkeys for nearly six decades. The NTF picks the farm and supplies the photo-op bird (and its back-up). Big Turkey representatives are on hand at the ceremony to provide any needed avian management -- and also to get some good PR photos.

When not helping the president pardon a bird or two, the NTF openly boasts of promoting the sale (and death) of 256 million turkeys a year.

For years, the two spared White House birds were relocated to a replica farm in Northern Virginia with the alarming name of Frying Pan Park. But in 2003, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals began a campaign reporting that three former White House turkeys at Frying Pan were living in "substandard conditions." (PETA claimed the birds were confined to a "tiny barren shed" with "nothing to eat or peck at. They were listless and their plumage was disheveled and discolored.... It was cold, and they were shivering.")

The park cried "foul," but in 2005, Frying Pan was off the menu for White House turkeys. And private industry heard the call.

Last year's pardoned turkeys, who were nicknamed "Marshmallow" and "Yam" and who were unable to fly very far themselves, snagged first-class seats on a United Airlines flight to Los Angeles, courtesy of Disney. Thus indebted, the pair served as co-grand marshals for Disneyland's Thanksgiving Day parade. They later settled down for a life of ersatz naturalism at the theme park.

The NTF has dismissed PETA's protest, telling the media last year that the switch of turkey-retirement facilities was to make the birds available to a "broader cross-section of the nation." Contacted by telephone, an NTF spokesperson confirmed that this year's pardoned birds are once again off to spend the holidays with Mickey and Minnie.

The artificial cheeriness of Disneyland may beat the gloom around the White House, where the holidays don't seem to matter so much anymore.

The Bush White House Web site formerly hosted a robust, interactive Thanksgiving page. Contents ranged from glad tidings from the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives crew to tips from the house chef ("I don't know any way to 'repair' a burned turkey") and suggestions from citizens. "Rather than a traditional cornbread stuffing, we use chopped-up turkey corndogs," one correspondent wrote. "I am confident this is something the President may enjoy."

Gourmands could note that the Bushes didn't go for the industrially raised, water-added, half-frozen bowling ball of poultry; last year's menu at Crawford Ranch offered "herbed, stuffed free-range turkey."

Today, the lame-duck White House has scaled back its turkey propaganda. Its site now offers only boilerplate background material and this year's "help name the turkeys" survey. I've cast my vote for the idiotic malapropism "Corn" and "Copia," though I suspect "Flyer" and "Fryer" will win. "Ben" and "Franklin," good luck.

Pity the poor turkey, which once had a shot at being the proud symbol of our shiny new democracy. Ol' Ben Franklin himself thought the turkey a "much more respectable bird" than the bald eagle. Now, the unwitting White House turkey, and its stage-managed photo-op, is just another Beltway tragicomedy involving resource mismanagement, industry insiders and selective truths. Not to mention first-class airfare comped by a conservative mega-corporation.

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click to enlarge Big Turkey: A key player in Beltway politics - PHOTOS BY HEATHER MULL
Big Turkey: A key player in Beltway politics

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