- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

For anyone who thinks it’s hard trying to be president, consider what it’s like trying to be a dead president.

Endless speeches, hand-shaking and pandering?

Try running and dancing and carrying on while wearing a foam-covered head weighing up to 50 pounds, all together 11- or 12-feet tall, that severely challenges sense of balance and changes vision from normal to tunnel.

It takes guts. It takes commitment. It takes a special breed of fan to want to don the gigantic heads of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt and do all sorts of wacky things during the fourth-inning Presidents Race at Washington Nationals home games.

Yesterday morning, an unseasonably balmy Presidents Day (of course), 30 members of that special breed — government workers and graphic artists and paralegals and PBS employees among them — gathered at the Nationals’ old home, RFK Stadium.

They had survived the first cut from a pool of about 120 applicants, invited to audition to be a racing president during the upcoming season in the new ballpark, to be among the few and the proud. Between 15 and 20 will get jobs, according to Nationals entertainment coordinator Tom Davis.

(Note: All the prospective presidents will be identified by first name only, in compliance with the team’s request for double-secret privacy, lest anyone learn his boss or cubicle-mate moonlights as Honest Abe.)

Among the more gutsy and committed was Lauren from Capitol Hill who has a broken right elbow. She also was one of just two women on hand, thus raising the question of whether Nationals fans are ready for a female racing president. Then again, with the costume, it’s hard to tell.

But she certainly appears to be tough enough. Lauren got hurt Friday while playing basketball with the guys. She said she fell while going for a rebound, “and my forearm went into my elbow.”

That’s gross. Yet here she was, wearing just a splint and running around as George Washington, a pretty tough cookie himself.

“I know I’d run quicker if I had a full, working arm,” she said.

But Lauren remained upbeat, positive, as undaunted as, well, the Father of Our Country.

“It was hot in there,” she said. “And [the head] is heavy. But it was so much fun. Imagine what it would be like in front of a stadium full of people.”

Asked why she is doing this, she quickly answered: “Why not?” she said. “How fun is that? I’m a huge sports fanatic.”

Others applied the same because-it’s-there rationale.

“I think it would be awesome,” said Bruce, a D.C. resident. “I just want to be part of a major league team in any capacity.”

Some of the applicants tried out last year, and a few even got to wear the coveted big head during games. But all had to reapply. Like with their players, the Nationals don’t want anyone getting complacent.

The hopefuls ranged in age from early 20s to late 50s. All gathered in what used to be the team’s family meeting room and listened to Davis and mascot coordinator Steve Roche impart some instructions and ground rules — no blogging, of course. “Be very careful,” Davis said. “You’re now 12-feet tall.”

Then it was time to start suiting up in groups of three. Teddy Roosevelt, whose winless streak since the live version started during the 2006 season (before that it was animated on the scoreboard) is a big part of the schtick, wasn’t there. Only Washington and Lincoln, jointly celebrating their birthdays, and Jefferson would be used.

“All right, presidents,” Davis said in an authoritative voice. “I don’t want to hear another word out of you until you’re out of your suits.”

Everyone complied.

The no-talking rule is crucial. These presidents are meant to be seen and never, ever heard.

“I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, my leg hurts,’ ” Davis said. “Wave or something.”

From the seats, the heads are big enough. Up close, they are huge. They are fastened with a complex harness system of belts, snaps and zippers, sort of like a parachute, only more complicated. It takes several people to help get out, and keeping it on isn’t easy.

“I had a problem keeping the head sturdy on my shoulders,” said Bill from Springfield, Va. “It wanted to bob a little bit. It was a little wobbly. It’s harder than I thought it would be.”

When the dressing process finally was complete, each president headed (so to speak) to the right-field tunnel leading to the field, bending deeply at the knees and waist to avoid conking his head on the door frame.

“That’s the hardest part,” someone said.

Once outside, it was time. Showtime.

“Abe, you good?” Davis said. “George, you good? Tom, you good? Let’s see you just run.”

And run they did, down the right-field line, on the muddy gravel and dirt. Waiting at the other end was Roche, who gave instructions for the return trip. This was the personality part of the pageant, the goofy part. They’re looking for a feisty, fun-loving attitude. “Give me a Chariots of Fire,” Roche told one group, which obediently broke into a slow motion trot.

Davis, waiting back at the start, asked each to show his victory celebration.

“Let’s see a chicken dance,” he told a Jefferson, who gave it a shot. “That’s not a chicken dance,” a Nationals staffer said.

The proceedings produced one casualty. Thomas Jefferson, aka Brian from Alexandria, pitched forward and fell during his sprint, scraping his head. His real head.

“I got a little excited,” said Brian, who now had become a media focal point, although not exactly in a good way. “It appears to be easy, but the excitement gets to you.”

Curiously, Brian said this was the first time he fell “during an audition.”

Does that mean he was one of the actual racing presidents last season?

“Possibly,” he answered, refusing to elaborate, no doubt invoking executive privilege.

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