Wednesday, October 16, 1996
Abe oughta throw his hat in the ring

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As a rule, I believe voting for president is a private matter. Usually, it's between me, the ballot box and a coin toss.

This year is different. I'm voting for Abe Lincoln.

At least with my heart.

And it was Gerald Bestrom who gave my political heart strings a good yank.

Mr. Bestrom is an old farmboy from the Midwest. He's split rails - has the busted fingernails and work-hardened hands to prove it. He's self-educated. And he's a dead ringer for the long-dead president.

But then, he works at it.

Two days ago, Gerald Bestrom just showed up at the office. As hard as it is to do in a newsroom's screwy, zoolike atmosphere, Mr. Bestrom stood out. Thin as a just-split rail, he stood at the reception desk and drew stares with his stovepipe hat, black frock coat and matching black suit. It was Abe Lincoln.

Mr. Bestrom tours the country preaching Mr. Lincoln's gospel, playing the musical saw and spouting Abe-isms - ''a house divided against itself cannot stand'' - at schools, churches and museums. It's an honest living. At $325 per event.

Abe Lincoln came into Mr. Bestrom's life in 1990. After a co-worker pointed out the resemblance to the 16th president, he started looking up Lincoln lore and fell under the spell of his words.

A year later, Mr. Bestrom left his job at a brass foundry to be a full-time Lincoln interpreter. He swears nothing heavy hit him on the head to get him started on this one-role acting career.

Just in town from Tennessee - ''been on the road so long I'm outta tune with the country'' - he stopped by The Enquirer ''out of providence,'' and directions from a gas-station attendant in Covington.

Mr. Bestrom's Mr. Lincoln came to Cincinnati looking for Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, candidates running under the banner of the party Abe Lincoln helped found. He was four days late and a dollar short.

While the face is a match, Gerald and Abe are not identical. Mr. Bestrom's shorter by 2 inches, thinner by 20 pounds and older by three years. Lincoln was 56 when he was assassinated. Gerald Bestrom is 59.

The beard is real. But, it's tinted, along with his hair. Then there's the mole. A pack of 10 costs him $100.

''I lost one once walking through Kmart,'' he said. ''It popped right off. Never found it. Man, was I bummed.''

Shifting into his Lincoln-mode, Mr. Bestrom gave Abe Lincoln's words of advice to tonight's presidential debaters.

He encouraged Bob Dole to keep fighting. ''Even though I was dogged by disaster, hounded by tragedy and stalked by defeat, I never gave in.''

He gave this pointed reminder to Mr. Clinton: ''Nothing is politically right which is morally wrong.''

Suddenly, in a very '90s move, he grabbed his hat and raced for the elevator. Time to feed the meter by his 1970 Winnebago. You couldn't miss it. It's painted to look like a log cabin on wheels.

In the elevator, a giggling office worker told him, ''You look good.''

He replied: ''I'm improving with age.''

Out on the sidewalk, he stopped traffic and gathered votes.

A cement-mixer truck slowed to the curb. ''Hey, Abe!'' the driver yelled, ''if you're running, you got my vote.''

The Dole-Kemp ticket has Abe's vote.

''I have to be loyal to the Republican Party,'' he said. A Republican elephant decal clings to his RV's rear window.

Dan Rapp and Denise Koenig, co-workers at a downtown public relations firm, spied the decal. They stopped to admire the vehicle's log-cabin paint job and got a stump speech.

Donning his hat, tugging at his lapels and standing on the top step of his Winnebago, Mr. Bestrom tells them ''we as a nation have drifted to where we are morally, socially and economically bankrupt.''

He wowed them. Donna said she'd vote for Abe in a heartbeat. Age is not a issue.

He has my vote because he acts as a reminder. Once upon a time, we had a politician with something of substance to say. And the courage to say it.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.