Politicians are supposed to know something about symbolism. Much of what they do is symbolic. And yet, for all their alleged expertise, they somehow fall short.
They stand to the heraldic eagle as, well, just a rafter of turkeys. (Yes, a grouping of turkeys is called a “rafter.” Hey: I didn’t make this up.)
President Obama, last week, provided a grand example — but before I get to the president, pardon me a digression. Particularly, in calling politicians “turkeys,” I mean no offense to the turkey.
The wild turkey known to our founding fathers — or to modern-day hunters — was not quite the same thing as what most of us eat each Thanksgiving. But even the fattened farm animal has its virtues. And let’s not forget Benjamin Franklin’s droll defense of the inelegant depiction of the eagle on Congress’s first official seal:
I am on this account, not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turk’y. For in Truth the Turk’y is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. . . . He is, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that,) a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards, who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
Americans never went so far as the Aztecs, who worshiped the bird as a minor deity, but there has nevertheless been a sad decline. For, on Wednesday, President Obama issued a pardon. To a turkey.
Every president since Harry Truman has been given a live bird for Thanksgiving by the National Turkey Federation.
Over the years, several presidents declined to feast on the birds they were given. Then, in more recent times, presidents have made a big media production out of officially pardoning the turkeys (who then reportedly live out their days on George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon).
So, what’s the problem?
For a photo-op, Mr. Obama — just like Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush père before him — saved the gift bird’s life, only to have another unpublicized turkey killed and then devoured behind closed doors.
Neither a vegan or a vegetarian, I certainly don’t begrudge him for eating the meat of the (after all) respectable bird. I did likewise. What offends is the spectacle of someone seeking to pardon his turkey and eat it, too.
Or, more accurately, two turkeys. This year’s non-sacrificial animals have names: Cobbler and Gobbler. According to White House reports, they also have distinct personalities: “Cobbler craves cranberries, is known for his strut, and enjoys the musical stylings of Carly Simon. Gobbler, a patient but proud bird, loves to nibble on corn and enjoys any music with a fiddle.”
I wonder what the personalities of the turkeys eaten by the Obama family had. Perhaps they liked classical music. Or Motown.
It’s tempting to dismiss all this as absurdity. But don’t dismiss the spectacle as “mere symbolism,” for the fake pardons symbolize more than Washington insiders can comprehend. In our nation’s capital, politicians
- argue for fiscal responsibility one minute and then plunge us further into debt the next,
- demand sacrifices from the people while living high on the hog, and
- decry the influence of special interests at press conferences and then deposit their checks at the bank.
Two famous turkeys live, thanks to the powerful public kindness of our potentate; a rafter of other, unknown (no doubt “middle-class”) birds die for the benefit of that same boss, and his family, and members of his gang.
And yes, “gang” is another name for a group of turkeys. But it’s also the name for a group of buffaloes. And, when it comes to our politicians, we’re too often buffaloed.