The presidents of Presidents Day -- Honest Abe Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, and George Washington, the general who could not tell a lie and declined to be king -- set the mythic standard for the presidential ideals of modesty, integrity and dignity.
Washington and Lincoln embodied all those splendid ideals that so many later presidents have found so hard to live up to, perhaps particularly now in the late 20th century.
Carl Closs, who often portrays Washington at Brandywine National Park, where the general lost the battle but saved the emerging nation, tells school kids that the Father of Our Country had all of the qualities listed in the Boy Scout Law.
You know: "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent." That was George.
"Any positive thing you can think of," Closs says, "he had."
The polite, reserved Washington may have had the highest approval ratings in the history of the presidency -- "people loved him," Closs says.
But Bill Clinton gets enthusiastic 80 percent performance ratings despite his embroilment in a sex-and-lies scandal, which may mean presidents don't have to live up to the Boy Scout Oath anymore.
On the presentation circuit, Lincoln ranks with Washington as an immaculate president.
"He was a very humble man, yet he knew his way around," says James Getty, who portrays Lincoln at the Conflict Theater in Gettysburg and around the country. "He was not ignorant. He had no grandiose ideas."
Presidents Day is showtime for presidential "portrayers," "presenters" and "interpreters." They don't like to be called "impersonators." And rightly so. They're often excellent historians, steeped in the minutiae of the character they play. They pop up today like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day.
Jim Getty is in San Francisco today, portraying Lincoln on a tour of schools, churches and Rotary Clubs. Carl Closs plays Washington today at a Delaware retirement community called Stone- gate. The nation's premier Washington, William A. Sommerfield, interprets his character at Mount Vernon, the first president's estate, overlooking the Potomac just south of Washington, the city. They're all full-time, booked-up, professional portrayers.
Sommerfield is the only Washington, except the original, to appear at Mount Vernon. He's also the only other Washington to have been "sworn into office" by the chief justice of the United States. "When I talk to schoolchildren, I lean forward and say, 'I really am the president.' "
In 1989, he rode a carriage from Mount Vernon to New York City, as Washington did for his first inaugural 200 years earlier. He took the oath of office on a Masonic Bible, as Washington did, on a balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street.
"I was sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger," Sommerfield says. "I gave the same speech Washington did."
That's the First Inaugural Address, which, long ago, school kids used to memorize along with the Farewell Address and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
"He talked a great deal longer than I did. I edited it to 20th century time."
Sommerfield, 64, artistic director of the American Historical Theater in Philadelphia, where he lives, has interpreted Washington at the Kennedy Center, on German TV and for the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) in a 90-minute off-the-cuff mock trial of the "traitor" general captured after the Americans lost the Revolutionary War.
"That's my specialty," he says, "being able to respond as Washington when there are no set lines."
At Mount Vernon he usually ends the day with a news conference on the piazza, answering the question that always comes up: "Is it true you never told a lie?"
"I did go into politics," answers Sommerfield-Washington.
"But he was a very truthful, straightforward man," he says.
Basically, the only thing false about him was his teeth.
"But Washington did not have wooden teeth," Sommerfield says.
Sommerfield began his portrayals in 1985 after his wife told him he looked like Washington.
"I'm the same size, 6 feet 3 inches, and weigh 210. I wear my hair long and tie it back like he did. I have all the accouterments: costumes, riding boots, spurs, swords, tricorn hats, pocket watch, but no false teeth."
Closs, the Brandywine Washington, lives up Route 1 near Kennett Square, Pa. He says you can't help being absorbed into the role.
"Little by little it takes over," he says.
Washington was not the cold, austere, marbleized figure we might imagine him to be from, say, the monument here in Baltimore's Mount Vernon Place.
"He partly created that image," Closs says. "He thought the dignity of the office of the president required him to present at all times an image that was impeccable."
Washington was, in fact, a graceful, athletic man who was an excellent dancer, drank at least three glasses of wine at dinner, gambled at cards and raced his own horses. He was also a good businessman who liked a 7 percent return on his investments.