Joe Wiegand has been a president in the White House, but that was never his political goal.
All he wanted to do was make the world a better place — and he still does.
He’s been involved in Illinois politics much of his life, running for Congress twice, but falling short of office. After running the state presidential campaign for Mike Huckabee in 2008, Wiegand decided he needed to do something entirely different.
So he took his political goals back 108 years to the turn of the 20th century, putting a big, toothy smile on his face as well as a full mustache, and developing a larger-than-life personality. He became Teddy Roosevelt, something he now does for 250 performances a year.
“Keeping that history alive right now is my mission,” he said. “My way of still being a man in the arena.”
On Thursday, the Women’s Civic League is bringing Wiegand’s one-man show to the Portage High School auditorium. This is a show Wiegand has performed in all 50 states, and even made a trip to the White House to perform for President George W. Bush in 2008.
Wiegand first started doing Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech in 2004, finding he could add something to Republican dinners that seemed to drag on.
“Everyone went to these dinners to get a bad piece of chicken and then a speech by a member of Congress, which made the chicken look good by comparison,” he said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘What a waste of an audience.’”
Wiegand began adding a little comedy to his performance, which wasn’t hard to do having grown up the son of a comic.
What he found was a second career, and a sought-after performer who not only looks like the 26th president, but knows all his stories and mannerisms.
He toured the country during Roosevelt’s 150th birthday, and also found himself on the U.S.S. Missouri in Pearl Harbor for a show.
Crafting Roosevelt is hardly something Wiegand did at the last minute. His love of history goes back to childhood, where he found presidential history fascinating.
He went to college and earned a political science degree, and worked on the campaign of Nancy Beasley, now a Portage resident, who ran for the state Senate in Illinois in 1990.
But the Roosevelt project really began in 2001, when Wiegand’s sister gave him a book on the president for Christmas. He started seeing some parallel’s in their lives, including both having to deal with asthma at a young age.
He also shared his ideals.
“The belief I share with Teddy is that there is something called American exceptionalism,” he said.
Wiegand started listening to early recordings of Roosevelt, and first-person reports of the president. He came away with a man who loved to tell stories, loved to entertain an audience.
When a senator came to the White House he told Roosevelt that he was preaching.
“Senator, you’re right. And the presidency is a bully pulpit,’” Wiegand said, recalling the president’s famous line. “And portraying Teddy has given me my bully pulpit. I get to be a little of Teddy the preacher, too.”
Roosevelt was a cowboy who overcame hardships, and that’s why, Wiegand said, many Americans loved him. He overshadowed everyone, including his opponent in the 1904 election. Wiegand encourages anyone in his audience to name who he ran against. Alton Parker was the Democrat he beat, by the way.
While Wiegand has dedicated his life to becoming Roosevelt, he does talk about if the president was worthy of Mount Rushmore. He said what helped him be carved in granite is the fact he was friends with the artist, Gutzon Borglum.
Wiegand said bringing a complicated man like Roosevelt to life is a humbling honor. And if he was alive today and involved in politics, Wiegand believes Roosevelt would be forging solutions to make a balanced budget, something both parties struggle with today.
“Teddy was always talking about Americans not yet born in the womb of time,” he said.
Wiegand’s performance concludes with Roosevelt talking about how he wants to be remembered as a man who accomplished things like the Panama Canal and preserving land. Not a man who was on a failed bear hunt that brought forth the Teddy Bear.
“If my goal (in politics) was to try and make a better America, I found a parallel path in trying to keep the memory of a great American alive,” Wiegand said.