Every year since 1947, The National Turkey Federation, originally with the help of the Poultry and Egg National Board, has presented the White House with a live Thanksgiving turkey, a gift that was always welcomed with a ceremony and photo op. And for years the turkey made his way onto the White House Thanksgiving table. Then for some reason, in 1989, President George H. W. Bush officially pardoned the bird, maybe because his feelings for turkey were the same as his feelings for asparagus. And ever since the Presidential Turkey Pardon has become a little piece of what happens in Your Nation's Capitol, through the terms of Bush 1, Clinton and Bush 2. Two birds, a primary and a back-up, would be presented by the Turkey Federation, pardoned by the president in a Rose Garden ceremony, and then trucked out to a happy retirement at Frying Pan Farm Park in Fairfax, Virginia.
And, of course, every year the Washington Post covered it, passing it among the Style section reporters like a not particularly appetizing dish at the Thanksgiving table. There's only so much you can say about an event like this, and most of it is in the preceding paragraph. So in 2005 they asked me to please cover it, attend the ceremony and then draw a cartoon about it. Hello, big time! My first question was, do I have to dress up or what? Gene Weingarten said yes, a suit & tie, which meant I had to get an overcoat as it was supposed to be sunny, cold & windy in the Rose Garden on November 22nd, the date for the ceremony. So I spent the night before at Hecht's buying an overcoat, a pretty nice grey one by Michael Kors, the orange-faced guy on Project Runway, and it was on sale. And I did a little research on the Turkey Pardon, discovering among other things that the president, no matter which one, always made the same jokes in his remarks. The rote nature of the ceremony meant I could start sketching the cartoon in my head and hope that nothing untoward would occur, like Dick Cheney showing up and eating the bird raw before he could be stopped.
The Pardon was set for 1 pm, and I had to go through security, so wearing my new duds I got to the Post around 11 for the letter that'd give me access to the White House. This was handed to me by Robin Groom, Sweetheart of the Style Section, who'd set everything up and told me if I had any problems to ask for Wally (I think it was Wally) and he'd give me a hand. Leaving my drawing supplies at the Post, I walked over to the main gate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was sunny, cold & windy, very windy in fact, big fat gusts that tried to knock you down. But with the determination and perseverance that'd made me a White House correspondent at the tender age of 48, I made it to the heavily fortified gate and bellowed through the little hole in the thick glass that I was here to witness the Pardon. I could dimly see two, large happy-looking guards, police or Marines or some special blend, inside the guardhouse, and they shouted back that I should go down to the Old Executive Building entrance down the block. The OEB, right next to the White House, is one of my favorite buildings in DC, partly because it's got ten billion columns on it, and I'd only been in it once before. I walked down to the plaza in front, where a little security tent had been erected and policemen were checking Turkey Pardon attendee's names on an official list. After some back and forth with the guard sitting at a little table it came out that I was Press, or nearly Press, and I should go back to the main guardhouse. There was one guy who kinda stood out in the security detail, a baby-faced slacker kid with a knit cap who looked like Elijah Wood before he'd started shaving. I asked a hard-nosed cop if the kid was Wally and the cop chewed his mustache and barked that We don't call agents of the Secret Service Wally. I hurried back to the main gate.
This time the happy guards let me into the first gate, into the guardhouse, and I presented my letter, my ID, spun around a few times, walked through some sensors, got wanded, and passed through the second gate onto the White House grounds, where it was somehow quieter and brighter, and everything was in Technicolor instead of sepia, but it was still too damn windy. At some point I'd heard that, because of all this wind, the Rose Garden ceremony would be moved into an auditorium in the OEB. I'm sure they were afraid that the turkey would be alarmed by the gusts and might attack the president, and after that pretzel incident no one wanted him assaulted by another food item. I walked up the driveway from the guardhouse to where a crowd of reporters were gathered by the awninged entrance to the press room, a low wing that reaches from the main White House toward the West Wing. The first thing I noticed about my fellow White House correspondents was that they were dressed like middle school kids hanging out at a mall. Everybody was wearing crummy jeans and sneakers and I stuck out like a sore thumb.
More TK, as we journalists say.