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Wednesdays with Wade: Walt Disney -- Greatest American?

Wednesdays with Wade: Walt Disney -- Greatest American?

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"Time" magazine in its December 27, 1954 issue declared: "Walt Disney is a genuine hand-hewn American original....a grassroots genius in the native tradition of Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford."

As we are still reveling in the memories of this week's July 4th celebrations, maybe we should take a moment to think about Walt Disney and his connection to America.

Walt Disney recently scored the number thirteen spot on the Discovery Channel's list of the top one hundred Greatest Americans. However, they considered his major accomplishment to be a "cartoonist and producer of animated films" and had a handful of "C" list celebrities gush about Walt being magical. No wonder Walt didn't make it into the top five if they consider that to be the reason Walt should be on the list of Greatest Americans. Thankfully, those who voted must have been more aware of Walt's true contribution to America.

Walt was honored many times for his Americanism. He received an award from the American Legion "for dramatizing to old and young alike the unique heritage of America." The Freedom Foundation presented him with its coveted "George Washington Award" for promoting the American Way of Life. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower who read the citation in a ceremony, praised Walt as an artist who excelled in "communicating the hope and aspirations of our free society to the far corners of the planet." The following year a group campaigned to award Disney the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1964, Walt Disney was one of several Americans chosen by President Lyndon Johnson to receive the President's Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. The award ceremony was held at the White House on September 14, 1964. (The urban myth that Walt wore a "Vote for Goldwater" button during the ceremony to endorse Johnson's opponent in the upcoming election, Republican Barry Goldwater, is completely false and has been debunked many times.)

A communication from US Department of State during Walt's lifetime declared: "In a very meaningful sincere manner, Walt sold America and Americana to foreign dignitaries...Walt Disney and Disneyland in a very real way may have contributed to better understanding and a friendlier attitude on the part of world leaders toward the United States."

Walt had a great fascination for American history and often had impromptu discussions around the dinner table with his family about the Constitution and America. Walt was frustrated by his wife's lack of interest for history and public affairs. One time at the breakfast table Walt read part of the Constitution and Lilly responded, "Isn't it wonderful that Lincoln wrote that all by himself?" Walt looked at her sadly.

Most people interested in Disney history know of Walt's fascination with Abraham Lincoln. On Lincoln's Birthday, when Walt was in fifth grade, he transformed his father's derby into a stovepipe hat with cardboard and shoe polish, borrowed his father's church-deacon coat, added crepe hair to his chin and a wart to his cheek. Principal Cottingham was so pleased with the impersonation that he took Walt into each class for a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, a ritual that continued until Walt graduated.

There had been a big Lincoln centennial celebration of Lincoln's birthday in 1909 that had gotten the young Walt excited about the former President. That celebration produced two lasting commemorations: the Lincoln penny and the Lincoln Memorial, which was not completed until more than a decade later.
"He's the great American," Walt Disney said when he introduced the audio-animatronic figure of Lincoln at Disneyland in 1965. "Whether he'd been a Democrat or Republican in those days, he'd still be the great American to me. ... He was a fellow that before making a decision (he) gathered everything he could, every fact he could. ... He never jumped to any decisions." Walt told his daughters that listening to Lincoln's speech brought tears to his eyes.
His daughter Diane certainly remembered that when her dad watched the flag being lowered every night at Disneyland that tears would run down his cheeks.
As we celebrate Disneyland's 50th, it is important to remember that Walt's intention was that the theme park represent the ideals of America to young and old.

"Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America," stated Walt Disney in his dedication speech July 17, 1955. That opening celebration included the Pledge of Allegiance, raising the American flag by all four branches of the American military and having the crowd sing the National Anthem.

In his speech, Governor of California Goodwin Knight proudly proclaimed that Disneyland had been "built by American labor and American capital under the belief that this is a God-fearing and God-loving country."

In a 1957 interview with newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper, Walt stated: "There's an American theme behind the whole park. I believe in emphasizing the story of what made America great and what will keep it great."

I phoned up Disney Historian Jim Korkis, who the network had asked be ready to fly to New York and defend Walt Disney's placement on the list on the "Today" show if Walt gotten into the Top Five. Among the two hundred some presentations that Jim does for Walt Disney World cast members is one entitled "All American Walt" covering in much greater detail some of the highlights I have included in this column.

"Walt Disney believed very strongly in America and American values. It was one of the reasons he was desperate to serve during World War I along with his brothers," Jim told me, "Those values were consistent in his private life. His daughter Diane has stated that Walt's sense of American history and patriotism inspired many conversations at home and he was extremely passionate about those values. In fact, those values were so basic to his character that they influenced everything he did from his animation to his live action pictures to his theme parks. He was able to give definitive American form to material drawn from European folklore. They say the Disney insignias worn by service men during World War II endeared Americans to the populace of foreign lands. Europeans embraced the Disney characters worn by Americans. Wearing Donald Duck made us the good guys. Few people realize that Walt took an active but quiet role in American politics. In 1952, he produced what may be the first animated commercial for a presidential candidate, Dwight Eisenhower. In the spot, an animated Uncle Sam declared, 'I like Ike.' Walt was always concerned about the Nation and the direction it was going. To put Walt on a list of Greatest Americans and consider him merely a producer of cartoons minimizes the positive impact that for good or ill, when the world thinks of America, Disney is one of the first images that come to mind."

And, as always, when I can, I like to give Walt himself the closing words:

"Once a man has tasted freedom he will never be content to be a slave. That is why I believe that this frightfulness we see everywhere today is only temporary. Tomorrow will be better for as long as America keeps alive the ideals of freedom and a better life. All men will want to be free and share our way of life. There must be so much that I should have said and haven't. What I will say now is just what most of us are probably thinking every day. I thank God and America for the right to live and raise my family under the flag of tolerance, democracy, and freedom.

Recently, I was invited to see a show on America, and as I sat there watching and listening I felt both proud and thrilled; thrilled with the voices, thrilled with the sounds, proud of the group of one hundred talented young Americans singing about our country. The songs that make me proud of being an American."

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