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With a bit of pomp and circumstance, Colonial Williamsburg announced on Aug. 3 that the nation’s first president, George Washington, is hitting the 2016 presidential campaign trail this month in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Of course, it’s not the real deal. As most schoolchildren know, the hero of the Revolutionary War died 215 years ago in his Mount Vernon home.
Washington is visiting the early caucus and primary states in the form of appropriately dressed actor-interpreter Ron Carnegie. Instead of joining the army of candidates already seeking the nation’s highest office, he’ll implore Americans to get involved in the election.
As Washington, Carnegie strode across the Kimball Theatre stage in tan breeches, black boots and a dark blue officer’s coat decorated with a three-star general’s gold epaulets. As a fife player and drummer led the way, he lifted his tricorn black hat to acknowledge the applause of several hundred in the audience.
“A free nation relies on an enlightened and educated citizenry,” he said. “I am entering the campaign to spread this word of responsibility of citizenry to the people of our United States. I look forward to joining our comrades in Iowa.”
There will be no endorsements of candidates or taking sides on issues. Instead, Carnegie’s Washington is campaigning for Colonial Williamsburg. Supporters say that in a high-tech world, Colonial Williamsburg, known for its original buildings, works of art and accurate recreations of early American life and politics, faces strong competition to sway visitors to step into the 18th century and learn about the nation’s origins.
In addition to promoting the 301-acre historic town, the foundation is using the unusual road trip to stress voter participation.
Carnegie also has a little advice for those running.
“They must all remember the responsibility to that great office,” he said as the president. “The responsibility not just to their personal interests or the interests of their political faction…. They must remember they are president of those who elected them and those who did not.”
The real Washington spent much time in Williamsburg during his life. As a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, he was one of Virginia’s delegates to the first Continental Congress. As commander of the American army, he also used the town’s George Wythe House as his headquarters near the end of the Revolutionary War.
“We want to use the iconic figure of George Washington not just to remind people not just of our rights, but our civic responsibility as citizens to engage in civil debates and to vote,” said Mitchell Reiss, president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “It’s important to remind people that all the issues we’re debating today began here in Williamsburg…. The first embers of opposition to the king started in the Apollo room of the Raleigh Tavern.”
The Washington tour is part of a broader effort by the nonprofit foundation to buck a decadeslong downward trend in attendance at Williamsburg and other historic sites nationwide. Williamsburg’s attendance has declined steadily since the 1980s except for a boost in ticket sales during the 2007 celebration of nearby Jamestown’s 400th anniversary.
Last year, 637,000 people visited the town, 14,000 fewer than in 2013 — a decline that hit not just ticket sales, but hotel and restaurant revenue, too.
“Simply put, we must reimagine Colonial Williamsburg in the 21st century to reach a broader audience,” Reiss wrote in the nonprofit’s 2014 annual report. “We need to attract more people here, to educate and entertain them even more than we already do.”
In Iowa, Carnegie’s Washington will be the first speaker to mount the Iowa State Fair’s Presidential Soapbox, where contenders in the 2016 election will make their cases to voters in speeches spread over nine days. Carnegie’s Aug. 13 speech falls on the same day that three candidates, including former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, will address the crowd.
By Aug. 18, Carnegie will be in New Hampshire; he also is expected to visit other key states during the election year, according to the foundation. The total cost of his travels are not yet known, a Williamsburg official said.
Carnegie, 53, has been portraying Washington for a decade and working at Williamsburg for twice that long. He has portrayed other historic figures over the years, including British Gen. Charles Cornwallis, the man who surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, ending the war.
Speaking as Washington, the actor said he’ll stress during his travels that strong debate will always be part of American life. But it can’t end there, he said.
“Difference of opinion in a free society — that is not a crime. That is a strength,” he said. “But there must also be compromise. Those factions must work together to achieve what is best for the nation, rather than what is best for their faction.”