From “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” to “A dream is a wish your heart makes”: Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney are together at last in an unprecedented Disney exhibit at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is the nation’s official repository for the memory of the man who, his supporters say, ended the cold war and defeated global communism. And for the next ten months the Reagan Library also is featuring the largest exhibition ever assembled of Walt Disney treasures, organized by the Official Disney Fan Club D23. It’s also the largest temporary exhibit in the history of the Reagan Library: 12,000 square feet, with 500 objects including drawings, costumes, models and other stuff, over half of which have never been seen by the public.
I had one question: why?
The National Archives operates the Reagan Library and Museum. The mission of the Archives is to “serve American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government.” So why is it displaying drawings of Bambi and Cinderella and the actual car from The Absent-Minded Professor?
And what does any of this have to do with Ronald Reagan? The answer: not much.
Reagan and Disney did do some things together. On one memorable day, October 20, 1947, both testified before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, on the first day of its “investigation” into communist infiltration of the film industry. Both were friendly witnesses. The next day, ten other witnesses refused to testify and were sent to prison. The Hollywood blacklist had begun.
But the Hollywood blacklist is not mentioned in the Reagan Library Walt Disney exhibit.
The exhibit opens with the statement that “Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan were two eternal optimists who shared a belief in the essential goodness of the American way of life.” That’s a start, I guess.
Next, when Disneyland opened in 1955, “Mr. Reagan, who was then working in the new medium of television, was chosen as emcee for the historic event”—along with Art Linkletter and Robert Cummings. In the first gallery a continuous loop shows black-and white video of a very young Reagan in a bowtie reading from script in hand about how “our very historic past” is represented at Disneyland.
After that Reagan disappears, and instead we get some great stuff—for those who care: the original script for Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon; hand-drawn artwork for Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty; and then lots of objects from Disney live-action films, including dozens of costumes, along with a submarine model from the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (where Kirk Douglas sang “Whale of a Tale”). Also, “a faithful recreation” of Walt’s office at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, including the baby grand piano played by Leopold Stokowski.
Although the exhibit is supposed to be about Walt Disney himself, it includes lots of stuff promoting Disney Studios’ current films, released more than forty years after Walt’s death, including The Avengers and the latest version of Pirates of the Caribbean. Note: promoting Disney Studios’ current films is not part of the mission of the National Archives.
Reagan doesn’t reappear until the last room, which focuses on the “Hall of the Presidents” exhibit at Disney World. It displays, among other things, ten Reagan documents dealing with Disney. But the point of the room is that all the presidents starting with FDR “reached out” to Disney, that Reagan was one among many. On display is a 1940 thank-you letter from Roosevelt acknowledging an original drawing of Mickey Mouse that Walt had sent him. There’s an even more unlikely letter from Eleanor Roosevelt, thanking Walt for the “many delightful evenings” his films had provided. She also described her husband as “one of the devotees of Mickey Mouse.” The room displays pictures of every president starting with Truman visiting Disneyland or Disney World—including Obama (with one exception: LBJ).
Reagan did have “a special relationship” with Disney, the wall text says, but the evidence here is weak. Reagan as governor endorsed a Walt Disney postage stamp, but that was after Walt died in 1966. Reagan as president issued a proclamation declaring a National Walt Disney Day (December 5, 1986), but he also issued proclamations declaring National Leif Erikson day, National Skiing Day and National Dairy Goat Awareness Week.
The exhibit closes by quoting a speech Reagan gave in 1990, on his last visit to Disneyland, on the park’s thirty-fifth anniversary. “They say that one man of vision can change the world,” Reagan said. “Well, maybe Walt Disney didn’t alter the globe, but he did make one small section of it a happier, friendlier, and more civilized place.” True enough—but that was twenty-five years after Walt died. It’s not evidence of a “unique friendship.”
So I return to the question, Why is the Reagan Library sponsoring a Walt Disney exhibit?
One clue: on the opening weekend for the Disney exhibit, the Museum’s attendance almost doubled. Melissa Giller of the Reagan Foundation reports that the typical weekend attendance is 1,200 on Saturday and 1,000 on Sunday. But for this weekend, “We had over 1,800 on each day!”
Apparently people are getting tired of hearing “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
That’s been evident for years, starting in 2005 when the museum opened the Air Force One pavilion in an earlier effort to boost attendance. That exhibit is completely apolitical. Conservative ideology is nowhere to be found in the 90,000 square feet, $30 million display. Reagan’s “Flying White House,” visitors learn, is the same plane used by all presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush, including Carter and Clinton—and thus is hardly a monument to Reagan’s unique role in winning the cold war. Indeed on the opening weekend of the Disney displays, lots of visitors also had their pictures taken waving from the front door of Air Force One.
Thus the Disney exhibit, like the Air Force one pavilion, suggests that the story of how Reagan personally ended the cold war is being greeted with increasing apathy. Or perhaps it’s skepticism.
There’s good reason for skepticism. Most historians now believe the Soviet Union collapsed not because of Reagan but because of its own internal dynamics, along with the efforts of Gorbachev to bring pluralist democracy. George H.W. Bush said pretty much the same thing on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead of praising Reagan, he gave credit to the Soviet leader. “We can never repay the debt we owe Mikhail Gorbachev,” Bush declared at a ceremony in Berlin in 1999. “History still hasn’t given him the credit he deserves, but it will.”
So maybe it’s not surprising that people would rather hear about the early days of Disneyland than about the last days of the Soviet Union. And if Reagan didn’t have much to do with either, that too is part of “our very historic past.”
Jon Wiener’s new book, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, will be published in October.