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Ersatz Abes Make Honest Living in Land of Lincolns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s never been a better time to be Abraham Lincoln.

This morning, John Kendall will groom his Quaker-style beard, brush off his stovepipe hat and drive off to his dream job--posing as Honest Abe at schools throughout the region. He’s been earning a respectable living this way for three years.

“There’s no comparison between being a boring bean counter versus the president of the United States,” said the 41-year-old former accountant from Laguna Hills who bears a striking resemblance to the rawboned, gangly president.

“But there’s some differences. I can’t walk into a bar, and if someone cuts me off in traffic, I can’t flip them off because it’s Abe doing it and I don’t want to reflect badly on the man.”

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Today, 188 years after Lincoln’s log cabin birth, Kendall and fellow impersonators throughout the country are perhaps the most intense and unusual expressions of a following built around the beloved president.

Even as other national historical figures wither under revisionist fire, Lincoln’s venerated standing among academics and the public has remained largely unscathed.

“The more people become disillusioned with government, the more popular Lincoln and his impersonators will become,” said Mark Gottdiener, a sociology professor at State University of New York at Buffalo. “Lincoln is revered for having real integrity, something typically in short supply in government.”

Indeed, the nation’s first assassinated president continues to inspire an unprecedented amount of attention, admiration and accolades.

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In addition to scores of exhibits, museums and shrines nationwide, Lincoln’s legacy has produced more than 16,000 books and on average produces a new volume every week. In fact, the only person in Western civilization to command more titles than Lincoln is Jesus.

A recent poll of the nation’s leading historians by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. again ranked Lincoln No. 1 among U.S. presidents. Public surveys through the decades almost always show the same results, say historians.

And, in a pop culture society, the best measure of Lincoln’s stature today is probably that only the king of rock-and-roll has more impersonators than the 16th president. That’s a distinction, however, the Lincoln look-alikes could do without.

“We are next to Elvis, but frankly, I don’t like the comparison,” said Dan Bassuk, a retired literature professor from New Jersey who founded the Assn. of Lincoln Presenters. “What we do goes way beyond impersonating.”

The group’s collective path to the Great Emancipator began in 1990 when Bassuk formed a presenters union. About 40 responded to a newspaper ad and dedicated themselves to promoting and preserving Lincoln’s memory.

“I just felt like it was time to link the Lincolns,” said Bassuk. “This can be solitary work. It helps to have the encouragement of others.”

Since then, the number of presenters has more than doubled within the nonprofit organization, which now also admits Mary Todd Lincoln presenters and non-impersonating patrons to its ranks. The group, which publishes its own newsletter called Lincarnations, boasts about 200 members.

“I’m not surprised at how many Lincoln impersonators there are,” said Robert Dallek, a history professor at Boston University who has written extensively about the U.S. presidency. “I’m surprised there aren’t more.”

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Three years ago, the presenters began holding annual conventions where the Lincolns could share their passion. This April, Gettysburg will host the Lincoln legions for three days when such topics as “Liberating the Latent Lincoln” and “Thrifty Lincoln: Performing With Tax-Free Advantage” will be discussed.

“We take what we do quite seriously,” said Homer S. Sewell III, a successful Georgia-based Lincoln presenter who haunts the former Confederate states. “I think if Abe were looking down on us, he’d say we are doing a good job.”

At last year’s convention in Springfield, Ill., where the erstwhile railsplitter is entombed, the sight of multiple Lincolns roaming the streets astonished residents. Locals abandoned their cars at busy intersections to snap a photo or to snag an autograph.

The spectacle also prompted a slew of wisecracks. One woman asked if the event was “a homely man’s convention,” while a local newspaper dubbed the scene: “Planet of the Abes.”

Presenters regard the conventions as the highlight of their year--save for the unmitigated splendor of Feb. 12. Like children before Christmas, presenters literally count down the days to Lincoln’s birthday.

“It’s one of those glorious days when all 89 Abraham Lincolns are working,” said Bassuk, who will go only to schools named after Lincoln on the birthday. “It’s our most special day.”

Some presenters play Lincoln for free, but most rely on their performances for their main source of income.

Bassuk expects to clear $900 today for portraying the president at two schools, a handsome sum by presenter standards. Most Lincolns receive between $100 and $250 an hour, but they rarely can find work for more than three hours at a time.

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But applause and money, which can be scarce for presenters when schools are in summer recess, are secondary motivators for the Lincoln bunch, say scholars.

“There’s no doubt this is a form of show business,” said Gottdiener, who has studied the phenomenon of Elvis impersonators. “But it’s not entertainment that’s stressed so much as what Lincoln stood for. That’s the real payoff.”

But that glory doesn’t come without sacrifice. It takes more than growing a funny-looking beard and wearing a funny-looking hat to succeed.

Most presenters are older than 55 and can run into trouble turning their salty hair to match Abe’s black mane.

“Some of these guys dye their own hair, and it looks lousy,” said Alta Loma resident Charles Brame, winner of the group’s “Most Noteworthy Abraham Lincoln 1996" award. “We need help on grooming, I’ll tell you that.”

And if a presenter isn’t well studied, Abe can end up looking pretty ugly. Presenter William T. Peck, a veteran Lincoln from San Diego, still cringes when recalling a novice’s rendition of the Gettysburg Address--normally a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

“He got lost two or three times. He had to start over. It was so embarrassing,” said Peck, 67, a superior court clerk who surrenders two of his four vacation weeks to Lincoln presenting.

” I told him not to play Lincoln again until he’d done his homework.”

Lincoln’s enduring popularity can be traced in part to an inability to crack his polished-marble image. More than a century of revisionist historians and changing social values have done little to detract from Lincoln’s extraordinary social and political achievements.

Early critics attacked Lincoln for micro-managing the military and for suspending civil liberties during the Civil War.

Later critics, particularly in the 1960s, railed against the president of a century earlier for placing the preservation of the union above the abolition of slavery. These same critics also accused Lincoln of dragging his feet before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, the famous 1863 document that declared all slaves in the Confederacy “forever free.”

But none of these criticisms have eclipsed the Lincoln legend--a self-educated, eloquent statesman who ended slavery, only to die a martyr for the union he saved.

“Whenever I’m in an airport today and people see me they always say these three things,” said Brame, 70, who has portrayed “The Living Lincoln” for 30 years. “He freed the slaves, he wrote the Gettysburg Address, and he was a good man.”

Meanwhile, other presidents once thought to be unassailable are now viewed more skeptically, even harshly, when judged--fairly or not--by today’s standards.

Andrew Jackson married a woman who never divorced her first husband, and ordered the relocation of Native American tribes to west of the Mississippi River in what is infamously known as the “Trail of Tears.”

George Washington, “the father of our country” and first U.S. president, was an elitist and slaveholder. So was Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president.

Jefferson took a broadside hit in the October 1996 issue of the Atlantic Monthly when Irish author Conor Cruise O’Brien labeled the Virginian a racist and argued his “fanatical” libertarianism emboldens right-wing militia groups today.

“It’s difficult to find leaders in our present day that don’t fail us given our concerns with equality, race and gender,” said Thomas Schwartz, Illinois’ state historian. “But Lincoln is different.”

It’s Lincoln’s legendary integrity that attracts many school and church groups to book the presenters. California Elementary School in Costa Mesa invited Kendall on campus last month because Honest Abe is seen as one of the nation’s best role models.

“We want to focus on things that build character,” said Patty Christiansen, the school’s PTA president. “It’s good for the students to hear that Abe walked two miles to return six cents.”

But sometimes, carrying Lincoln’s 19th century moral legacy into the more cynical 20th century can be a heavy load. Kendall found his patience mightily tested at an elementary school recently.

Speaking to about 80 first-, second- and third-graders, Kendall as Abe told the kids to always to be honest, never quit and maintain a good humor even when things turn sour.

Then, the pretend president opened the floor to questions. A young boy hesitantly raised his hand.

“Where’s the hole in the back of your head?” he asked with a straight face.

Kendall paused, then smiled and said: “Well, ask your teacher about that.”


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