“Excuse me, Mr. President?” a middle-aged guy in a suit and tie says, with nary a hint of irony, to Michael Krebs. The Abe Lincoln impersonator stops for yet another selfie request at McCormick Place.
“I can always feel when I’m being watched,” Krebs says while we make our way to Starbucks to fetch him a much-needed cup o’ joe. As the 16th president of the United States waits in line for a latte, a small crowd gathers for pictures and handshakes.
“Usually, at these types of events, I can’t walk five feet,” he says, handing me his coffee and putting on his stovepipe hat to pose with a pair of giggling 30-something women in navy pantsuits. (It’s the ladies, I notice, who dig Abe the most.)
A few minutes earlier, Krebs played it serious as a panelist for a breakout session at the annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Organizers of the August meeting had decided to bring in a ringer to trade war stories about leadership with two actual state senators: Brent Hill of Idaho and Michael Sanchez of New Mexico. But the modern-day politicians couldn’t match the gravitas of Krebs, who channels Lincoln so believably he makes Daniel Day-Lewis look like a hack.
The back-and-forth felt bizarre at first, and the senators exchanged skeptical looks when the moderator asked Krebs-as-Lincoln: Tell me a tough leadership situation you wish you would have handled differently. Krebs answered every question using Lincoln’s own phrases, which he’d memorized from the nine-volume The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. (Of course, Krebs rubbed it in by yammering on about the 13th Amendment. We get it, you abolished slavery, but what have you done for us lately?)
“It was very special to sit up there onstage with him and hear Lincoln’s words,” says Sanchez. “I actually had goose bumps.” Everyone in the room appeared to buy into the conceit that, yes, Lincoln himself was sitting among us. That is, until a Flo Rida ringtone interrupted a riveting riff on the true definition of liberty.
With election season in full swing, Krebs and his fellow Lincoln impersonators are in high demand. “It seems to ride the political cycles,” he says. Lest you think today’s insane Trump-dominated presidential race represents some sort of low-water mark for American politics, Krebs offers a reality check: Things were way worse in the 19th century. “We look at today as being on the razor’s edge. Oh my God, we’re nowhere close to it,” he says, pointing out that the splintering of the Democratic Party helped send Lincoln, previously a hard-luck Charlie who had lost eight elections, to the White House.
Krebs is one of at least a dozen Abes for hire in Illinois, according to the Association of Lincoln Presenters. Among his competitors: a husband-and-wife team from Wheaton who call themselves Abe and the Babe. But Krebs’s physical resemblance far exceeds that of most others—many of whom rely on a lame fake beard—so much so that he’ll appear as the former president this fall on the new NBC thriller Timeless.
To make a full-time living as the Great Emancipator, Krebs (who insists it is purely coincidence that he lives on Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square) crisscrosses the country appearing at Civil War reenactments and filming TV spots for Lincoln-named businesses, including Honest Abe Roofing in Terre Haute, Indiana. (“The commercials help float the boat,” Krebs says.)
People long told Krebs, who stands 6-foot-4—Lincoln’s exact height—that he looks like Abe. In the early ’90s, he hustled for acting work, scoring roles on TV shows such as America’s Most Wanted. But he couldn’t get Abe out of his head after seeing the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War. A few years later, a playwright pal cast Krebs in a show about Lincoln, which ran on the second floor of a Lincoln Park church for a month.
“Back then, I’m thinking, Maybe I do Branson for two years,” he recalls. “But all of a sudden, people are desperately trying to get in touch with you to do your thing.” An appearance in a 1994 C-SPAN production of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in downstate Galesburg sealed the deal.
Now, at 60, Krebs is in his prime, his aging face closely resembling the famously craggy mug. His bread and butter is school visits—80 or so a year across the country. (He charges $600 to $975 a pop, considerably less than what he gets for commercials, he says.) Krebs strictly maintains the illusion that he is, indeed, President Lincoln. It doesn’t always work—like the time he ducked into a cornfield to change, only to see two teenage boys reflected in his car mirror as he straightened his tie. (That’s nothing compared with his frequent Mary Todd collaborator, Debra Ann Miller, who sometimes wiggles into her hoop skirt in the back of Krebs’s Honda Element.)
Even without the 19th-century duds, the physical resemblance can result in unexpected perks—and Krebs isn’t above going along for the ride. Once a gate agent bumped him up from standby on his way home from New York City. “Sure enough, I’m sitting there eating a doughnut and I hear them call out, ‘Mr. Lincoln, Gate 26,’ ” he recalls. “People roll out the red carpet for me. Lincoln didn’t have it that good!”
Other times, his Lincoln-ness can be downright dangerous. A decade ago, he was riding his bike (not in costume) to a museum gig when a group of teenagers drove next to him for several blocks, yelling, “Look, it’s Abe Lincoln!” until—boom—they crashed into the back of a garbage truck. (No one was hurt.)
After our coffee break at the summit, Krebs suggests visiting C-SPAN’s Campaign 2016 bus. Onboard, he regales a young producer with tales from the set of his big break with the political network, as well as of his 2015 portrayal for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s second inaugural, which the producer boots up on a large TV screen.
“Welcome to the C-SPAN bus,” an intern, who looks exactly like Kenneth from 30 Rock, says as several summit attendees appear in the doorway, look over at a relaxed Lincoln, and do a collective double-take.
Krebs doesn’t acknowledge them. But as we get up and shuffle past, he flashes a sly smile. “I don’t care if anybody knows my name,” he says. “What matters is that I did this character correctly.”
Still, he’d be less than honest if he said he didn’t love the attention.