Joe Wiegand once dreamed of being president. Now this disillusioned politico makes a living impersonating his favorite former head of state.
Joe Wiegand might have spent more time in public as President Theodore Roosevelt than as himself this year. But that doesn’t stop him from feeling a little embarrassed changing into his three-piece cutaway tuxedo, watch fob, and top hat in the parking garage at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. He’s here for an evening matchup between the Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. He’s never attended a ballgame in character, after performing earlier today as Roosevelt at some schools in Davenport, Iowa.
The only modern accessory visible on Wiegand, an Illinois native, is a Cubs necktie, communicating his lifelong loyalty to the team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908 – when Theodore Roosevelt was President.
Fans of both teams keep telling Wiegand they’d vote for him if he ran for President this year. He’s been getting that a lot this election cycle as he zigzags throughout the United States, earning a living dressed as Roosevelt. He’s hard to miss. Above a walrus moustache, a pair of prescription pince-nez eyeglasses rests on the bridge of his nose. If it gets too windy, he’ll switch them for a pair of modern bifocals with stems.
“I wish I was the first president to throw out a pitch,” Wiegand says. “But that was Taft.” Even when he isn’t performing, Wiegand tends to speak in first-person as Roosevelt with TR’s brassy timbre.
The Cubs win 4-1, padding their record, which is already the best in the Major Leagues. Wiegand is dreaming of the chance to bring Roosevelt to Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ home stadium, for this year’s World Series.
After the game, everybody wants a picture with the dead president.
Wiegand leaves St. Louis in his SUV, which he’s named Manitou after the horse Roosevelt rode across the Badlands of North Dakota in 1884. The vehicle is wrapped in images of a young Teddy. He’s on his way to Buffalo, where he’ll re-enact the moment Roosevelt was sworn in as the nation’s youngest President at 42.
Wiegand, 51, has been on the road since January, sometimes performing at multiple schools, museums and cultural centers in a single day. He appeared in Nevada, California, Georgia, Washington, D.C., Colorado and London in the month of February alone, relying on local barbers to maintain the proper TR haircut: a little longer on top than on the sides, and with a high part. He Googles images of Roosevelt on his phone before every haircut to assist the barbers.
“I’m just delighted I don’t look like Calvin Coolidge,” Wiegand offers. “I’d be doing very short programs in Vermont and New Hampshire.” (Coolidge, a man of notoriously few words, was nicknamed “Silent Cal,” and came from a long line of New Englanders.)
But Wiegand was destined to play the 26th president. His parents met at Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1959 on Chicago’s north side. They married soon after graduating and started a family. In 1976, when Wiegand was eleven, his father, Jim, moved them all to Hollywood so he could pursue stand-up comedy, renovating an old brothel – or as Wiegand says Roosevelt would have called it: “a former house of ill repute” – to live in.
Teenage Wiegand rebelled against his hippie father. “I became a Christian, Republican NRA member who passed fliers out for Reagan,” he says. But Wiegand’s enthusiasm for Reagan only inspired his dad to plan a road trip centered around his son’s interest in politics. On July 4, 1981 the Wiegands drove their white Ford Econoline cross-country to the White House. They stopped at campgrounds and state fairs, asking people to write postcards to Reagan, which they planned to hand-deliver to the president himself.
The Wiegands were featured on “Good Morning America” to discuss their family adventure, which Jim dubbed “Walkin’ Proud, Talkin’ Loud For America.” They arrived in the nation’s capital the next day where, despite the national attention, the White House staff was not expecting them; the president wasn’t even there. Eventually, the Wiegands were invited to tour the Oval Office.
After his family moved back to Illinois, his father turned an Irish pub into a popular comedy club that hosted the likes of George Carlin and Pat Paulsen – a cutting satirist who ran six comedic campaigns for the presidency. Meanwhile, young Wiegand began to devour political and military history. He competed in extemporaneous speaking competitions at school and developed strategies to help liberate the people of the Soviet Union from Communist rule. He later attended Sewanee: the University of the South, and became the only underclassman – and the only yankee – to ever be voted President of the student body. His senior portrait had a strategically placed painting of Ronald Reagan in the background. Wiegand set his sights on returning to the White House.
* * *
It’s Teddy Roosevelt Weekend in northern New York’s logging-truck and woodpile country, about a hundred miles south of the Canadian border. The cluster of small towns in this area – Newcomb, Tahawus, and North Creek – have done well to capitalize on the fact that, in September 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt vacationed here. When he climbed the top of Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks, the highest point in New York State, he got word that president McKinley was dying.
Now, Wiegand’s Theodore Roosevelt holds the door for people as they walk into Newcomb’s middle school, located just off the Roosevelt-Marcy Memorial Highway, a two-lane mountain road that twists up into the clouds.
“There was no presidential pension in my day,” Wiegand says, “so I’m working for tips as a doorman.” His voice hops an octave when he assumes Roosevelt’s speaking manner, a lyrical, Victorian accent, frequently punctuated by a big laugh that cuts through the auditorium like a bugle call.
There’s a Donald Trump sign in the yard across from the school. There are cars in the school’s parking lot, some with Bernie Sanders bumper stickers, others supporting Hillary Clinton. Roosevelt is there to speak about foreign policy. The host is Roy Ginsberg, a professor of International Politics at Skidmore College. He’s a tall, bald man with a white beard. “Ladies and gentleman,” he announces, “the President of the United States!”
The crowd jumps to their feet. The sound guy plays “Hail to the Chief.” Wiegand strides to the stage, in full TR mode, and hands a large stuffed teddy bear to a boy in his mother’s arms.
On the stage, decorated like a campsite with a fake fire and full moon, the guest presides over the audience. Ginsberg lists some of Roosevelt’s accomplishments: “First to go abroad as sitting President… First President to receive a Nobel Peace Prize… First sitting President to have published a book.”
“Teddy” nods, proud.
“OK, let’s turn to some of your short falls…” the professor says, looking at his index cards. But Roosevelt interrupts. “Let’s return to my firsts!” he booms. “I was the first president to go down in a submarine. Much to the disappointment of my opponents in Congress, we came back up.”
“You didn’t get along with Congress?” the professor asks.
“The opposite of progress…is Congress!” The line, which is in fact a Mark Twain quote, kills. The crowd all but says a collective amen.
Two women stop Wiegand outside of the school after his performance. It’s as though they are speaking to TR himself, and confess their grief over the current presidential campaign circus.
Wiegand, happy to appease them by staying in character, says, “I do take comfort, ma’am, in the fact that we’ve survived all of the previous administrations… While we perhaps lament the situation that we’re in during this election year, may I remind you that the highest office in the nation is not President… it is citizen.”
Earlier this year, a child asked Wiegand what he – Roosevelt – thought about Donald Trump. Wiegand, a proud conservative Republican, told the audience he thought Trump was a buffoon. “Teddy wasn’t beyond name-calling,” Wiegand says. Roosevelt himself called President Taft a “pudding-head” and a “puzzlewit.”
There was a time when Wiegand dreamt of being a well-known politician in his own right. After college he became a county commissioner in Dekalb County, Illinois, a campaign manager for Republican Gubernatorial candidate Jim Oberweis, and ran twice as a candidate for Illinois state legislature, but came up short. He went on to work for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a political advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, hosting debates in different cities between politicians about tax codes. Once, to generate interest in these debates, he marched through Downtown St. Louis dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier with a tri-cornered hat, holding a handmade sign reading, “Our Tax Code Is Revolting!”
The next day he made the front page of the St. Louis Dispatch and realized there is something powerful about becoming a costumed character for a cause.
Wiegand remembers the day he told his wife Jenny that he wanted to get out of Illinois politics after nearly twenty years of service and move on to his real passion. “Imagine that family meeting?” Wiegand says. “‘Sweetheart, I think I’d like to become TR for a living.’”
One Minnesota-based Roosevelt impersonator told Wiegand he doesn’t like doing Teddy because trying to nail the voice tears up his throat. When performed correctly, the voice soars high and cracks for emphasis and excitement, though, when somber, sinks into a rasp. Wiegand never experiences pain when contorting his voice to sound like Roosevelt, but it does dry the throat, and he sucks cough drops before and after gigs.
Wiegand’s first-ever performance as Roosevelt was in 2006 at his home in Illinois. He and Jenny invited over family and friends.
“I know President Obama wrote the Audacity of Hope,” Wiegand says. “My book would be The Audacity of Believing I Had the Chops to Bring TR to Life.”
Wiegand hid an outline of his script on cue cards. Jenny says the trouble with that first performance was Wiegand spoke for an hour before the narrative even saw Roosevelt charge up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders in Cuba. (TR hadn’t even been elected Governor of New York yet.) That was the last time Wiegand ever used any kind of script.
He cut his teeth at rotary clubs and homeschool gigs, making gas money – all while working his biggest job yet in politics: running Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign in Illinois. It was the culmination of his political career, yet, after helping pass just one property tax reform as county commissioner, he was disenchanted with politics and felt like he could offer the public more. Wiegand decided to take TR on the road. He chose not to call himself an impersonator or re-enactor. So he coined the term repriser.
“In Article 1 of the Constitution,” Wiegand explains, “it includes the power to issue letters of marque and reprisal which allows a licensed pirate to capture our enemies’ vessels and present them in exchange for reward… So what I try to do is capture the essence of Theodore Roosevelt and present it in exchange for reward.”
As Barack Obama ran for election against John McCain, Wiegand booked gigs across the country, sometimes showing up to a national park, unannounced, performing on the fly. Wiegand’s wife and daughter joined him on the road for months, visiting every state.
In October 2008, the White House called Wiegand out of the blue. The Bush Administration wanted him to help celebrate Teddy’s 150th birthday in Washington.
It was shortly after Vice President Cheney had accidentally shot a fellow hunter in the face on a hunting trip. “Let me put to rest a pernicious rumor,” Wiegand opened his show. “I have not returned because someone needs a hunting lesson.”
The audience wasn’t sure if they should laugh or not – until President Bush, sitting in the front row, laughed.
Later, Wiegand – speaking as Roosevelt, who, after his two terms in the White House, returned to run on a third-party ticket and lost – told President Bush, “When you get to your ranch in Texas, I should tell you that if you feel like running for president again…lie down until the feeling passes.”
* * *
Fifty people sit outside the McNaughton Cottage, in Tahawus, New York, where Roosevelt and his family stayed the night before he became President, waiting for Wiegand to emerge from the forest.
Wiegand bursts out in what he calls Roosevelt’s “tramp-about costume”: a khaki jacket, white vest, safari hat, and binoculars around his neck. His boots are covered in mud. He places both fists on his hips, pushing back his jacket to expose his barrel shape.
“Today’s not so much a celebration as much as it is a commemoration,” he begins, reminding the crowd that they are only here to see him because an anarchist had assassinated President McKinley.
As Wiegand goes on to tell the story of a college-age TR dealing with the unexpected death of his father, he takes a long, sorrowful moment of silence, Wiegand reveals genuine grief. He remembers his own mother, who took her own life when Wiegand was 21.
Both men chose to face their grief by running headfirst into nature. Later in Roosevelt’s life, after the death of his wife and mother on the same day in the same house, he traveled west for the Badlands of North Dakota. A month after Wiegand’s mother died, he hiked through a blizzard under a full moon on Friday the 13th. He intended to propose to Jenny, on Valentine’s Day. But the blizzard slowed him and Wiegand hitched a ride on a chicken truck, ultimately proposing on the fifteenth.
As Wiegand travels the country this year, he thinks about his father, who passed away last year.
In front of the audience at the cottage, Roosevelt’s cloud-splitting voice breaks the silence. “I wrote in my diary, ‘I thought I might go insane from sadness.’”
* * *
Tweed Roosevelt, the great–grandson of Theodore, has requested that no impersonators of Theodore be present at any function where a member of the Roosevelt family might be in attendance. Tweed might then prefer to summer far away from Medora, North Dakota. Should he visit the small town in mid-July, he’d find multiple Theodore Roosevelts.
In 2014, Joe Wiegand began the Gathering of the TRs in Medora – the gateway town to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. He invites as many Roosevelt impersonators as he can find to perform and talk shop. Larry Marple of South Charleston, Ohio, who has been playing Roosevelt for eight years, says Wiegand “goes out of his way to never make it feel like competition. In our world Joe is a rock star.”
Until this year, Wiegand had yet to bring Roosevelt to life at Sagamore Hill – the house in Oyster Bay, Long Island where Teddy lived and died. Wiegand avoided marketing himself there because Sagamore Hill boasts its own in-house TR impersonator. But the National Park Foundation picked Wiegand to perform at the house in September for a group of donors who have each provided at least a million dollars to the National Park Service in observance of their centennial.
Wiegand arrives at Old Orchard Museum, the big brick house across the lawn from Sagamore Hill, with his wife, who he hasn’t seen in a month. The party starts with an open bar in the museum; donors are allowed to view special Roosevelt relics, such as the top hat he wore to President McKinley’s funeral.
“TR is here,” one staff member yells to his coworkers. “I want to shake his hand!” The staff claps as Wiegand enters.
“Call me Colonel, my friends call me Colonel,” he says.
He introduces Jenny: “This is a very patient bride whose fellow thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt.” Jenny teases him about how he wanted to be the President since he was ten. “Well, now he gets to play a dead one,” she says.
Roosevelt’s visit to the Old Orchard Museum today gives the character the unique experience of getting to see his own death mask. The man who acquired the mask, Jay Purell, a member of the Friends of Sagamore Hill – an organization that finances the cleaning of Roosevelt’s animal head trophies displayed throughout the home, among other Sagamore-related endeavors – speaks to Wiegand, not Roosevelt, momentarily.
“Apparently,” Purell says, “Teddy was embalmed in the village…” He stops mid-sentence. “You were embalmed in the village,” he corrects himself, “and walked back up to Sagamore.”
If Wiegand was already nervous bringing Roosevelt to life at Sagamore for the first time, now he is doubly so: Tweed Roosevelt has just arrived.
Wiegand tells the story about the time Roosevelt gave a speech for ninety minutes after having just been shot, as the guests follow him up the hill to Sagamore, where the Roosevelt family motto is carved above one of the entrances: Qui Plantavit Curabit – “He who has planted will preserve.”
The lights are kept low in the big house for a night tour. Park rangers hand out flashlights. Guests move through the hallway upstairs like planchettes on a Ouija board. The floorboards creek. They hover in the doorway of the room where his wife, Edith, put Teddy to sleep on January 6, 1919. He died here that night in his sleep.
The guests shine their flashlights into the room – looking at the bedframe. Then Wiegand yells from downstairs, startling the guests. “Join us for supper in the tent on the lawn!”
“It’s good to have his voice back in the house,” one guest says.
Tweed Roosevelt watches the image of his great-grandfather pace across the stage beneath the tent before him like a lion. Wiegand performs one of Roosevelt’s most famous speeches, “The Man in the Arena.”
“The credit belongs to the man and woman in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,” Wiegand recites. The speech is apt for a nation anxious to recover from a brutal election year; it speaks to risk takers who charge fearlessly into life – and to the son of a comedian who dared to bring Roosevelt back to life.
It is possible that Wiegand, whose energy is relentless, could play Roosevelt for the rest of his life. But he’s never liked politicians that “clung so tightly to their office – as if it belonged to them and not the people.” He says he owes it to Teddy to ultimately step back and let some other young, ambitious guy have a go at it.
Roosevelt’s daughter Alice once said, “Father wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral and the baby at every christening.” And with the annual Gathering of TRs growing, it’s possible that by 2020, a century after his death, Teddy Roosevelt could run for mayor, governor, President and Vice President simultaneously.
At the speech’s conclusion Tweed Roosevelt gets up from his table to intercept Wiegand as he walks back to his chair. Tweed smiles and embraces the man. Guests raise their drinks to the National Park Service centennial. Then, Theodore Roosevelt yells, “See you all at the bicentennial!”