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Coming Back as Teddy Roosevelt

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Coming Back as Teddy Roosevelt

Joe Wiegand. Bet you thought this was Teddy Roosevelt. (WBEZ/Ben Calhoun)

The Republican National Convention begins its third day in St. Paul, Minnesota. Party conventions are the kind of places where political careers can be made and broken. But at this year’s Republican convention, one Illinois politician is finding a kind of rebirth as a president. Sort of.


Follow all the RNC news at The Election File blog.
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Joe Wiegand always loved politics. As a kid, he studied history and foreign policy. He ran for student government and won. When he grew up, Joe Wiegand dedicated more than two decades to politics in Illinois. Eventually he got elected to the Dekalb County Board. But then, his political career turned south. He ran unsuccessfully for State Representive. Ran again and lost again. In 2006, he managed an unsuccessful run for governor by Republican Jim Oberweis. And so Joe Wiegand, the guy who’d always loved politics, was at a crossroads.

WIEGAND: It’s truthful that as that campaign came to conclusion, I thought about what to do next.

The stress of the campaign had put a strain on Wiegand’s home life, and his wife Jenny was concerned.

WIEGAND: She told me, for being pro-family, you haven’t spent much time with yours.

Wiegand is a former cross country runner, but as he struggled with politics, his health had also started to slip.

WIEGAND: I was starting to look more like William Howard Taft than myself.

Wiegand did some hard thinking. And he found himself going back to a biography he’d read of the late President Teddy Roosevelt.

WIEGAND: It inspired me and reminded me that when I was a young asthmatic boy, the story of Theodore Roosevelt building his body and overcoming his asthma was something that inspired me greatly, and set me on that course of being a political leader myself.

When I found Joe Wiegand this week in St.Paul, he was standing in a light rain outside the convention hall. He was dressed in a black suit, and a top hat; spectacles perched across his nose.

WIEGAND: If I may, Theodore Roosevelt, celebrating my 150th birthday. A sesquicentennial is hard to say and fun to do.

Wiegand had been impersonating Roosevelt before managing Jim Oberwies’ losing campaign in 2006. But after that was over, he pursued it like never before, seeking out recordings of Roosevelt, slowing them down with digital technology so he could imitate the voice. He built a library, and immersed himself in the details of Roosevelt’s life.

CALHOUN: How long have you been doing this?
WIEGAND: For several years now, full-time I’ve been entertaining audiences and informing school children about the life and the stories of Theodore Roosevelt.
CALHOUN: You do this full time?!

Wiegand actually looks unbelievable like Roosevelt; about the same height, about the same built, with a real mustache that’s a ringer. For hours on end on Tuesday afternoon, Wiegand held court outside the convention hall in downtown St. Paul, right next to the stage for MSNBC.

MAN: How about a picture?
WIEGAND: May I please?
WOMAN: Oh no...
WIEGAND: You play the part of the rose and I’ll be the thorn.

With the crowds, Wiegand is a showman, quoting Roosevelt at length.

WIEGAND: It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles.

He goes toe to toe with the occasional diehard fan. Yes they do exist.

WIEGAND: If I may sir, I must just say that in this cleanshaven era, it’s good to see a man with a good bully mustache and beard. We are so much less a hairsuit people than we used to be.
MAN: Well your father was one of the finest beard-wearers of his time.
WIEGAND: Well done sir.

But the interesting thing about Wiegand, maybe the most interesting thing about what he’s doing, is that he’s using his full-time impersonation for political purposes.

WIEGAND: I think it’s quite silly and poppycock, that we don’t embrace the truth, that we should have a strong armed force, that we should observe the Washingtonian maxim that the best way to preserve for peace is to prepare for war.

That came in debating with Anne Whittamore, who was standing nearby in a Barack Obama t-shirt.

WHITTAMORE: You think the Republican Party now, is the Republican Party of Teddy Roosevelt?
WIEGAND: Nothing stays the same madam. I fought the Republican Party every step of the way, and ended up leading it anyway. Isn’t it interesting that I think John McCain had wound up along the same path.
WHITTAMORE: It’s interesting. I don’t think it’s true, but I think it’s interesting.

This is what Wiegand does now along with presentations at schools, and government events. And it’s not just a full time hobby. Wiegand sold his house to do what he’s doing now. And for more than half a year, he’s been traveling the country with his wife Jenny, trying to turn his Roosevelt impersonation into a profitable living.

CALHOUN: What did you think when he told you he wanted to do this?
WIEGAND: It took a little while to sink in.

Jenny Wiegand says eventually she came around to the idea. She’s a golf-pro, and so the two have taken their daughter on the road... with her playing tournaments, him doing appearances. Jenny Wiegand says since Joe started impersonating Roosevelt, she’s seen him find a new path to the things that he couldn’t find in traditional politics.

WIEGAND: It’s because I know what kind of man he is. His dream has always been to inspire and to do the right thing in public service. It hasn’t happened yet, to be elected. He’s been on county board, but it hasn’t been further than that. And so if he can do that same thing in the character of Theodore Roosevelt, then I’m here to support it and it is a lot of fun.

I asked Joe Wiegand what he thinks Roosevelt would say about what he’s doing. Wiegand says he thinks that Roosevelt would be pleased, that, in Wiegand’s words, he is a man who took a risk for a dream and is having a wonderful adventure.

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