field notes

A Restaurant Critic Crashes the White House Turkey Pardon

“Butter,” one of the White House turkeys. Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im

“The Turkeys stayed at the Willard hotel last night,” I overheard someone say. “They always do that.” I was among the rabble of scribes, hacks, and weathered, vaguely recognizable TV faces beginning our slow, unruly procession from the famously cramped, airless White House press quarters out into the bright fall sunshine toward the Rose Garden. There were definitely more interesting things happening around Washington, D.C., yesterday, but we’d assembled to witness the annual turkey pardoning, the folksy, predictably loony presidential ritual that, according to the glowering pardoner-in-chief himself, stretched all the way back to the days of Lincoln, when the president’s son begged the great man to spare their family turkey the day before Thanksgiving. (Of course, this is not actually true.)

The event’s official name is the Presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey, and I’d been urged to attend by a colleague who had better things to do than hang around the Rose Garden on this beautiful fall afternoon scuffling for turkey quotes. I went anyway, because jaded New York restaurant critics don’t often get to experience folksy old bits of Americana like this, and, as someone who had never visited the Trump White House, it seemed like a perfect little symbolic window — turkey to turkey, if you will — into the loony, madcap, farcical spirit of the place.

Events like this are staged farce, of course, and the best kind of turkey pardoning, as any grizzled press veteran will tell you, is one at which everything goes to hell: The birds flap their wings and become rebellious, crowds of PETA protesters amass outside the gates, flustered Secret Service officers chase the birds to and fro among the presidential hedges. Sadly, none of that happened yesterday, and as those same grizzled White House reporters will also tell you, the minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour moments of absurdity and lunacy emanating from the Trump White House long ago upstaged canned photo-op events like this one.

When we arrived in the Rose Garden, a marine quartet was playing wan wedding tunes under the shiny leaves of an old magnolia tree. The VIPs sat on folded chairs up front — the chairman of that great turkey-slaughtering institution Butterball and the president of something called the National Turkey Board (they may have been one and the same person; it wasn’t entirely clear), along with the North Carolina farmer who’d raised the two lucky turkeys — named Bread and Butter — looking resplendent on this banner day for Turkey people in a pair of Richard Petty–style wraparound shades.

The marine band played for half an hour or more before the turkey pardoner made his shambling appearance in his trademark New York capo overcoat and red tie, looking, I’m a little sorry to report, the way he always does — glowering, bluff, and orange tinctured — with the statue of Melania, dressed for the day in shades of turkey-stuffing brown, standing expressionless at his side.

The turkeys, by contrast, looked fabulous with their jiggling, vividly pink wattles and plumes of fluffy white feathers, and later on when I replayed the mercifully short ceremony on my Twitter feed, you could see what looked like tiny little microphones affixed to their snowy white breasts. As the pardoner-in-chief made his brief remarks — a mixture of the usual campaign platitudes and vitriol (“Democrats are accusing me of being too soft on Turkey”) with a few prayer-style blessings thrown in — you could hear the birds’ amplified gobbles drift out over the crowd.

It seemed like a fitting touch in a town where most presidents are eventually reduced to caricature, but none of them ever reached the levels of tragicomic Mad King parody as the current pardoner-in-chief. “Butter, I wish you a lotta luck,” he finally said, laying his tiny hand, briefly, on the snowy feathers of the startled, gently gabbling bird. And with that, this loony ceremony of national absolution was mercifully adjourned. He’d shortly jet off to Florida, where the Trump clan will be able to dine on overdone turkey at Mar-a-Lago.

The marine quartet quickly struck up, according to my hastily tapped-out notes, “God Bless America,” and the White House press handlers who, with their caked makeup, tottering high heels, and friendly, radiant automaton smiles, looked, it later occurred to me, less like PR people than like wedding planners wearily attending their third wedding of the day, ushered us politely but firmly off the White House lawn.

A Restaurant Critic Crashes the White House Turkey Pardon