Look long and hard at the plump, white-breasted bird the president will pardon tomorrow. If the past is prologue, the bird is also a metaphorical turkey: He's escaped being slaughtered, trussed and served up. But he's being conned by the poultry lobby and the White House.
The average lifespan of a male turkey is between three and five years. Unfortunately, for those not-so-lucky birds President Barack Obama plucks out of obscurity, they might not see a second Thanksgiving. All eight of the eight turkeys Obama previously pardoned are dead.
Let's look at last year's lucky birds, Cobbler and his second in command, Gobbler, who, like Vice President Joe Biden, stood ready to assume Cobbler's duties should something untoward occur. They checked in to the four-star InterContinental Willard Hotel (where Abraham Lincoln stayed) a few days early to enjoy a level of service few will experience. Gobbler cooled his flayed feet, ordering room service while Cobbler went off to soak up the spotlight as if he were a visiting head of state, only better. To the clicking cameras of the gathered press corps, Cobbler got to cluck it up not just with the president but also with the rarely seen Malia and Sasha.
It used to be that pardoned turkeys took a star turn in a Thanksgiving Day parade after being shipped to one of the Disney theme parks. But Obama stopped the show turkey routine in 2010. Cobbler and Gobbler were transported instead to Mount Vernon, home to our first president and now the residence of choice for pardoned turkeys. It's an upscale life as they skitter about in specially constructed pens. Visitors to Mount Vernon may come to see the historic home of George Washington and his newly opened presidential library, but they stay to admire the butterballs.
And butterballs they are. According to a clerk at Mount Vernon, the understudy, Gobbler, passed on to that great poultry farm in the sky in February from an unknown, sudden illness. Cobbler fell ill and was euthanized in August. The cause of death isn't specified but let's talk turkey: These birds are bred to reach an impressive weight of at least 40 pounds. Deprived of Lipitor and a treadmill, they're prime candidates for heart attacks and respiratory failure. Their lives aren't brutish or nasty, but they are short.
The White House tradition began when the Poultry and Egg National Board saw an opportunity to promote their product on a slow news day and delivered turkeys to the porticoes of Harry Truman and later Dwight Eisenhower, who unceremoniously consumed them. The first not to chow down was John F. Kennedy who, four days before his assassination, said, "Let's just keep him." The word "pardon" first came up in 1987 when Ronald Reagan was asked about the fate of the infamous Oliver North in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal and instead joked about pardoning a turkey named Charlie. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush made it official when he spared his white-breasted guest and granted him a "presidential pardon."
This year the president will emerge to do his duty by pardoning either Popcorn or Caramel, selected by the head of the National Turkey Federation from 80 specially groomed specimens who were exposed to loud music and bright lights to cull the herd of any creature not up to the fanfare that awaits the Top Turkey.
This could be the year when the jinx is lifted -- it's the first with Obamacare in effect, at least for those able to access the website, which surely two turkeys bred for greatness and with multiple handlers should be able to do. With subsidized premiums, low deductibles and wellness visits, the turkey you see tomorrow could well live a long, healthy and productive life.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)