- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Hail to the impersonator in chief.

From Vaughn Meader’s brilliant parodies of John F. Kennedy to Dana Carvey’s dead-on imitations of the first President Bush, there is nothing new about mimicking the leader of the free world.

But in a town known for loose lips and inside tips, Saturday night’s performance by George W. Bush impersonator Steve Bridges came as a complete surprise to the 2,700 pundits and journalists gathered for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.

“We all managed to keep our lips zipped,” said Mr. Bridges’ agent, Randy Nolen.

“I didn’t tell anyone — my parents, my friends,” Mr. Bridges said yesterday from California. “The president wanted it to be a surprise. I was very nervous, but I was excited. It was just a kick. The president was great.”

“We were floored,” said ABC News correspondent Ann Compton, president-elect of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

“Tony Snow didn’t know. [Scott] McClellan didn’t know,” she said, referring to the incoming and outgoing press secretaries. “We knew nothing of it. It was stunning to me. But Bush loves to outwit the press, to outmaneuver them. He loves surprises.”

As for Mr. Bridges’ dead-on shtick, bumbling through his alter ego’s malapropisms and much-mocked parlance (“not only around the world and globally, but internationally, too”), Miss Compton said, “It’s absolutely uncanny. This guy takes stand-up impersonation to such a new level. His ability is so remarkable.”

The son of a Baptist preacher, Mr. Bridges, 42, has appeared on “The Tonight Show” and has his own Web site, www.stevebridges.com, and his agent’s phone is ringing off the hook.

“He’s the best and the most expensive in the country,” said John Collins, co-owner of Classique Productions in Las Vegas. “And Steve, in real life, looks nothing like the president.”

Adrienne Gusoff, owner of Manhattan-based talent agency Bubby Gram, agrees that Mr. Bridges, who waived his $25,000 fee to join the president at the podium Saturday, is at the top of his game.

“Steve is the big honcho,” she said. “I’ve got also two high-end look-alikes who get from $5,000 to $12,000 an appearance.”

But look-alikes are just cardboard dummies. Impersonators such as Mr. Bridges are highly skilled actors who not only resemble a famous face, but study every tick, every mannerism, every nuance of speech.

It takes Mr. Bridges almost three hours to get into character with the help of Academy Award-winning makeup artist Kevin Haney (“Driving Miss Daisy”), who applies latex prosthetics covered in stage makeup. Then comes the closely cropped silver-streaked wig.

Mr. Bridges first met Mr. Bush in the Oval Office in February 2003. But it wasn’t until January of this year that White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett made the call that led to Saturday night’s performance. There was one run-through at the White House, and the president spent time rehearsing his lines. (The script was written by longtime Bush speechwriter Landon Parvin, with input from one of Mr. Bridges’ writers, Evan Davis, and Mr. Bush himself.)

And of course, Mr. Bridges voted for Mr. Bush.

“Are you kidding? I was yelling for him. Screaming for him. This is my living.”

Does the pretender make more than the president, whose annual salary is $400,000?

“A lot more,” Mr. Nolen said. “He’s cranking out pretty big dollars.”

Of course, presidential impersonators are not new. It was said that Franklin D. Roosevelt had several look-alikes who entertained at parties. And of course, Mr. Meader sold 7 million copies of his brilliant parody of Mr. Kennedy, “The First Family.”

“Ronald Reagan had some very funny impersonators,” recalled Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, former White House chief of protocol. “I think it depends on the good nature of the president. Ronald Reagan had a great sense of humor. No one laughed more than he did.”

And then there is “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) — with Dan Akyroyd’s jowly Nixon impersonations and Darrell Hammond, who captured Bill Clinton with every sincere bite of his lower lip.

These days, Will Forte has taken over the Bush presidential character on SNL.

“He’s good,” Mr. Bridges said. “But I’m in usually in bed by that time.”

On Saturday night, the impersonator also got to meet first lady Laura Bush as she and the president left the Washington Hilton.

“She just gave me this look and smiled,” Mr. Bridges said. “I can only imagine what it must have been like for her.”

As for any future plans to join up with the Bush family: “I haven’t been invited yet to Kennebunkport,” he said of the clan’s Maine home. “Maybe I should just pack my bags and show up.”

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