Presidential voices from the past share conversation about common ground

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On the stage at Grand Haven High School are, left to right, Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson, Chuck Chalberg as Theodore Roosevelt, Paddy Morrissey as Ronald Reagan, and Gleaves Whitney as himself, the Director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It is an intriguing premise: would influential presidents of the past with different approaches to governing be able to bridge the gaps in their understandings and find common ground to work together?

The problem is, most of them are not around to speak for themselves.

The ever-resourceful people at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies found a promising solution: invite skilled actors steeped in the ideas and lore of the presidents they impersonate to engage in hypothetical conversation.

As part of the Hauenstein Center’s commitment to holding events along the lakeshore, the actors impersonating Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, along with Hauenstein Director Gleaves Whitney, appeared on the stage at Grand Haven High School last Thursday.

Three hundred people attended, and Whitney said afterwards that the turnouts are typically very high for such lakeshore events. Hauenstein Center partnered with Grand Haven’s Loutit District Library and Grand Haven Public Schools to host.

Each of the “presidents” gave a brief introduction before joining Whitney for a guided conversation.

Bill Barker, who has impersonated Thomas Jefferson often since his inaugural appearance in 1984 at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, kicked off the event. His Jeffersonian voice, a blend of aristocracy and touches of folksiness such as dropping the final “g”  in “ing,” came at the audience out of the darkness, and then the imposing figure — Barker is just about Thomas Jefferson’s 6’ 2-1/2” height — strode on stage.

He spoke about common ground in a way that would likely have made sense to the actual Jefferson: in terms of the political and religious freedoms that guarantee a level playing field. After speaking humorously about jailed Baptists — persecuted prior to the passage of the Constitution, but also outspoken advocates for first Virginia’s and then the new nation’s freedom of religion policies — Barker/Jefferson said that there could be no common ground without constitutional guarantees of freedom from royal tyranny and from religious oppression. “I cannot emphasize enough the regard for maintaining a common ground in the great liberty to hold differences of religious opinion and in politics, but also to remind ourselves that a difference of opinion must never be a difference of principle,” he stated. “That is our clarion call as Americans,  to show the rest of the world that we can remain a safe haven for people with different views.”

An American History teacher, Dr. Chuck Chalberg interprets a number of famous characters, but he inhabited the role of Theodore Roosevelt fully.

He started out by thanking the people of Michigan for being one of six states that voted for him in the 1912 election. That four-way race pitted Roosevelt against Woodrow Wilson (who won), William Taft the incumbent president, and the socialist Eugene Debs, in which Roosevelt received 27% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes, much above Taft.

At that time Roosevelt had started the Progressive Party and Chalberg, irascible as Roosevelt was reputed to be, started off saying that he could not imagine common ground with the constitution-defending Jefferson because “the constitution is not a strait jacket.” He added, “The Progressive Party understands that this is the age of concentration of power,” in which the government had to expand enough to regulate big corporations and support the growing labor force.

In an interview afterwards, Chalberg noted that though Roosevelt had the reputation of being a trustbuster, actually Taft accomplished more in the antitrust area.

In his introduction, he talked a lot about World War I and how “he” thought politicians of the time lacked courage in their failure to commit to war.

When Paddy Morrissey took the stage, he voiced Ronald Reagan telling his life story, ending with his common-ground diplomatic approach to the Soviet Union. “I remember in Geneva Gorbachev and I and our staff sitting around the table. We were getting nowhere, so I finally looked at Gorbachev and said, maybe you and I should talk together for a while. That started, well, you might call it a friendship, because we were talking about common ground. Sometimes promises were not kept, but in 1978 I stood before the Berlin Wall and said Mr. Gorbachev, if you believe in peace, open this gate, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. And it happened.”

Then the three presidential interpreters sat down for a conversation, guided by Whitney.

The ensuing discussion of common ground was limited because in order for the presidential actors to stay in character, they had to remain within their era. For example, at a certain point when “President Lincoln” came up, Jefferson showed great surprise because the person of his acquaintance named Lincoln — General Benjamin — did not seem like presidential material.

There were certain issues on which the three were able to find that common ground, such as the need for extraordinary measures in the defense of the nation against outside forces. Each also upheld the right of citizens to keep guns in order to defend themselves.

A recurring theme was the gap between presidents doing what was right for their times and how their beliefs might be inadequate in a different era.  Said Chalberg/Roosevelt to Barker/Jefferson, “You believed in your time that if you granted freedom to the people, equality would be automatic, but I understand the great possibility of corruption. You thought that equality and liberty would march hand in hand, but of course you couldn’t see what was going to happen as the 19th century unfolded with great concentration of economic wealth in a few hands.”

In the long run, the three gave the impression that they were fair-minded, and politically savvy, enough to find common ground to work together for the common good.

The actors were convincing despite the challenges of having to improvise. Two of the three had been together before when, at the Gerald R. Ford Museum, Morrissey and Barker helped celebrate what would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday in 2011.

When asked whether his views are similar to Roosevelt’s, Chalberg said, in a voice very unlike the one he had previously used, that at one time he was more sympathetic, but now he leaned more towards the conservative.

“Roosevelt was very sure of himself, and a very strong character — our first celebrity president,” he added.

Paddy Morrissey said affably that his political views are the polar opposite of Ronald Reagan’s, which is consistent with the fact that he started out playing Reagan in satirical venues, including a 1986 starring role in the musical satire Rap Master Ronnie by Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame. But even though Morrissey’s background is as a comedian, he said that he has studied Reagan from a historical vantage point as well, including reviewing video footage of his speeches — and that Reagan comes off very well more often than not. Morrissey added, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable expressing my own views in a forum like this, and by now it’s very easy to say what I think Reagan would have.”

Barker agreed in regard to voicing Jefferson’s opinions. He works for Colonial Williamsburg, “and you have to be authentic to the greatest detail,” he said. He added that his study of Jefferson has been intensive, resulting in what he called an internal “database” he can access.

“Common Ground” is the Hauenstein Center’s theme for the upcoming year. The next event will be Sept. 9 at Grand Valley State University’s Loosemore Auditorium downtown. Gleaves Whitney will speak on, “Is Common Ground Possible?”, bring in notions about dysfunctional Congress, cynical citizens, and the soundbite society. Visit hauensteincenter.org for more information.

Larry Halvorsen of Loutit Library said that namesake Ralph Hauenstein, who is now 101, had intended to come but was not feeling up to it Thursday night. Hauenstein was born in the same year that Roosevelt ran on the Progressive ticket.