Friday, April 4, 2008

Richard Nixon and Disneyland

I might do a post on each individual President and Disneyland (well, those that have a connection to Disneyland) or I might lump many of them together. But I felt Richard Nixon deserved his own post, because I feel he is the President with the closest ties to Disneyland. One could argue that Abraham Lincoln might take that honor, and as important as his robotic performances have been, he never visited Disneyland or consorted with people that did. Ronald Reagan was part of the cast for the opening TV show and returned for the 35th anniversary, but I'm not sure he visited anytime in between or afterwards. And although his Presidential Library is in Simi Valley, Reagan was born in and grew up in Illinois.

So, let's take a look at Nixon and his ties to the Magic Kingdom. He is, of course, the only Orange Countian to become President, born in Yorba Linda on January 9, 1913. As Disneyland is a pillar of Orange County's identity (they kind of grew up together), it is altogether fitting that Nixon's path would intersect with Disneyland's over the years.

Nixon's first visit to Disneyland happened as Vice President soon after Disneyland's opening, on August 11, 1955, and was well-covered by the press. Nixon attended with wife Pat and daughters Tricia and Julie, but also in the party were brothers of Richard and Pat and their kids. C.V. Wood presented Nixon with a key to Disneyland on the steps of City Hall; Nixon was also greeted by Fess Parker. The Nixons toured the Park extensively, riding on the Fantasyland dark rides, the Mark Twain Riverboat, the Jungle Cruise, Rocket to the Moon, and touring the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Exhibit, among other things. I particularly like the Los Angeles Times' account of the ordeal of riding the Tomorrowland Autopia for the images it conjures up:
"The motorcade of midget autos in Autopia was one of the highlights of the day.

"Leading were three secret service men in separate tiny cars, followed by the Vice-President and Tricia, Mrs. Nixon with Michael Ryan, other members of the party distributed two by two in other cars, then three solemn Anaheim police officers, each in his separate car, and two carloads of newspaper photographers bringing up the rear. The crowd loved it and cheered the motorists on."
Nixon, evidently, had a great time, calling Disneyland "a paradise for children--and for grownups, too. I don't know when I've had so much fun." Pat thought he was having more fun than the kids!

The family didn't make it back to Disneyland again for several years, but it was quite an event when they did, as they were the guests of honor to help dedicate the brand-new monorail in 1959. Nixon (in his second term as Vice President) came out West for a four-day swing, attending the opening of the Nevada Silver Centennial at Virginia City (birthplace of Pat) on June 12, attending a 25th anniversary reunion of his graduating class at Whittier College and spending time with his mother on June 13, partying at Disneyland on June 14, and attending commencement festivities at the University of San Diego on the 15th.

Pat and the girls got an early start at Disneyland on June 14, "dashing from one ride to another," while Nixon attended church services with his mother in Whittier. After lunching in Walt's Apartment above the Fire Station, the Nixon family led the extended procession celebrating the additions of Disneyland '59. After opening the Matterhorn and becoming the first sailors on the Submarine Voyage, the Nixons helped to dedicate the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail System and took the first ride on that. Associated with this dedication is one of my favorite Bob Gurr stories--the time he kidnapped the Vice President!

Before getting to the story, you have to understand that, even on its Opening Day, the Monorail was still really in its testing phase. It had made precisely one complete loop around its track before June 14. Bob was fairly confident he could get the Monorail to at least drive out of camera view (this was a big TV event), but after that, all bets were off. Well, prior to lunch, Walt had brought the Nixons up to the Monorail for a sneak preview. He brought them in the cab and tells Bob, "let's go." So, naturally, Bob complies. As the train loops around out over the Submarine Lagoon--with a view directly back to the station--Bob sees that the Secret Service agents had been left behind! As they were pulling back into the station, the Secret Service ran alongside the train... but Tricia and Julie wanted to go again, so the monorail made another loop. As Bob tells it, as they exited the Monorail after the second trip, and began heading down the speedramp, Nixon turned around to see all the Secret Service agents sitting in the train!

After the Disneyland festivities, the Nixons held a family reunion at Knott's Berry Farm, with personal attention from Walter Knott.

On June 6, 1961, Nixon spoke at a Republican fundraiser at the Disneyland Hotel, at an event sponsored by the Orange County Republican Central Committee. (He and other Republicans were frequent visitors to the Disneyland Hotel for banquets and speeches.)

On September 2, 1961, Nixon and Tricia toured Disneyland while the press tried to determine if Nixon was going to run for governor of California.

On August 16, 1968, after meeting with California Governor Reagan, the Nixons visited both Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.

After election as President, Nixon frequently visited Orange County for stays in the "Western White House" in San Clemente. On one such visit, on August 10, 1969, Air Force One was welcomed at then-Orange County Airport by bands from Disneyland and Santa Ana High School playing "Hail to the Chief." Although Nixon returned to Orange County following his resignation--even taking up an interest in California Angels baseball--I was unable to find evidence that he visited Disneyland again after 1968 (besides at least one Disneyland Hotel speaking engagement).

But Nixon's Disneyland connections extend beyond his personal appearances. Two of Nixon's top staff members as President also had close ties with Disney and Disneyland. H. R. Haldeman served as White House Chief of Staff from the time of Nixon's inaugural in 1969 until April 30, 1973. Prior to this he had also worked on Nixon's unsuccessful California gubernatorial bid in 1962. His day job was with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Though I have been unable to learn more, I have found authoritative references that Disneyland had an account with the agency (on which Haledman worked). Additionally, Haldeman had some level of friendship with Walt Disney and served as the first chairman of the board of trustees of the California Institute of the Arts. (More tangential is that Haldeman's grandfather was a branch manager for the Crane Company, an original Disneyland lessee.)

Many people know that Press Secretary Ron Ziegler worked as Jungle Cruise skipper while attending USC. Actually, he was born in Kentucky and first attended college (Xavier) in Cincinnati, on a football scholarship. That summer he and a friend drove across the country to visit Ziegler's parents, who had relocated to Los Angeles. They got jobs at Disneyland as weekend Jungle Cruise skippers. While employed there, he met a number of Cast Members who went to USC. Though he had intended to return to Xavier, he liked Disneyland and the California lifestyle so much that he transferred to USC and involved himself with campus politics. This led to contact with Haldeman--and Nixon. Haldeman then employed Ziegler at J. Walter Thompson, where he worked on the Disneyland account.

"It's because of Disneyland that I ended up at the White House," Ziegler recounted in 1970. (If they had built the Hall of Presidents on Liberty Street, we might have heard a President remark, "It's because of the White House that I ended up at Disneyland"!) Had Ziegler not gotten the Disneyland job, he would not have had the opportunity to get closely involved in Nixon's campaign--and American culture would be the poorer for not having the remark on "inoperative statements" in regards to Watergate.

1 comment:

Major Pepperidge said...

i can't help thinking of Richard Nixon a la "Futurama", with his head in a jar!