It's Not Abe. Honest

Some 140 years after his death, Lincoln has inspired a national crew of impersonators. The beards are real

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You could be a Washington or a Jefferson or, impudently, a Robert E. Lee. You could gain some weight, acquire pince-nez and an air of temerity and be Theodore Roosevelt. You could buy a long cigarette holder and do F.D.R.

But it might be lonely work, unless you're a Lincoln. Of all the Founding Fathers and ex-Presidents, only Abraham Lincoln has his own national association of impressionists. They are called, appropriately, the Association of Lincoln Presenters (A.L.P.), and since 1990 the group has attracted more than 160 Lincolns, from Alaska to Florida. There's even one in Spain. You can find other groups of historical impersonators--they go by names like Living Legends, the California outfit that can send your school or Rotary Club this one guy who can go from portraying Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman to, unaccountably, Golda Meir. (Peter Small is his name, and he says his portrayal of the epicene Israeli is meant with respect.) But the association of Lincolns is unique, a claque devoted to a single historical figure.

The Lincolns of the A.L.P. are no mere Civil War re-enactors. They approach their work with a mixture of sacerdotal adoration, historical rigor and commercial self-interest (some impersonate Lincoln for a living, and virtually all charge several hundred dollars per gig to portray him at parades, nursing homes and museums). For the best Lincolns, bringing him to life means hours of prep; those docents in Maryland may not ask you back if you can't perform a speech Lincoln gave in the state. And then there are the costuming challenges--carefully shaving your upper lip, coloring the gray from your whiskers, suffering the assumptions of those who mistake you for a lost Amishman.

But as much as any professional historian or Lincoln scholar, the pretend Lincolns show us why the 16th President remains such a colossus in the American imagination. These men are a little freaky, but through their eyes--often set in a hard stare to mimic those dreary 19th century portraits--you get a pretty good view of his legacy.

You don't have to look like Lincoln to be a Lincoln presenter--there are fat ones and short ones and white-haired ones--but of course it helps. In what must have been a dispiriting compliment, many of the A.L.P. Lincolns were told from a young age that they resembled the ungainly President. Some had already grown the distinctive beard--typically out of a deeply misguided sense of fashion, although at the 11th annual A.L.P. convention in April, I did meet one Robert Rotgers, 69, who grew his beard in the mid-'60s "for theological reasons"--he was an Anabaptist seminarian at the time.

What kind of man would dress up like Abraham Lincoln all the time? It turns out they share only a few similarities--to a man, the Lincolns at the convention, which was held at a Marriott outside Detroit, were white; most turned 60 some time ago. Nearly all were grandfatherly hams who liked to flash their pocket watches or hand out shiny pennies and say, "Would you like a picture of me?"

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