By Michael Barrier
On September 14, 1964, Walt Disney received the Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, from President Lyndon B. Johnson. The other twenty-nine recipients of the medal, in a glittering White House ceremony, ranged from Helen Keller to Carl Sandburg to Dean Acheson to John Steinbeck—a cross-section of the most famous and esteemed Americans. The 1964 ceremony was the second such. The Medal of Freedom had first been awarded in 1945, but it was in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy "reorganized the program," in the New York Times's words, "to make it an annual recognition by the White House of persons who have contributed significantly to the quality of American life."
The photo above, from the National Archives, shows Walt just after he received the medal from LBJ; it's visible on his right lapel. As for what's barely visible on Walt's left lapel...well, that's another story.
One of the most persistent of the many strange (and usually false) stories about Walt Disney is that he wore a Barry Goldwater campaign button to the Medal of Freedom ceremony, which took place in the midst of the 1964 presidential campaign. Wearing a button visible to Johnson—Goldwater's ultimately victorious opponent—would seem to have been a slap in the President's face, a rude gesture difficult to reconcile with what we know of Walt Disney otherwise. Trivial in itself—if it happened—the button story has held my attention because of what it might tell us about Walt, but also because of what it says about the ramshackle state of Disney history and biography.
Authors who have repeated the story have positioned the button at various places on Walt's jacket. Marc Eliot's lurid Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince says, without a wisp of substantiation, that "Disney wore a 'Goldwater' button prominently displayed on his lapel." Neal Gabler, in his more sober-sided Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, writes that "Walt wore a Goldwater button under his lapel." Unlike Eliot, Gabler cites a source, the Disney PR man Charles Ridgway, as quoted in Howard and Amy Boothe Green's Remembering Walt: Favorite Memories of Walt Disney: "The day Walt went to the White House to receive the Freedom Award [sic] from President Johnson, he wore his Goldwater button inside his lapel. ... Johnson did not take Walt's political commentary with good grace at all."
But wait: if the button was inside Walt's lapel, how did Johnson see it, unless Walt lifted his lapel in a gesture that no one present reported at the time? Ridgway's own memoir, Spinning Disney's World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent, published in 2007, adds nothing to the Greens' quotation—understandably, since Ridgway wasn't present at the ceremony and doesn't claim to have been there. He's simply repeating a story he heard from someone else.
Could that have been Emile Kuri, a longtime set decorator for the Disney live-action films? Kuri unquestionably traveled with Walt on a number of occasions in the 1960s, to the New York World's Fair in 1964-65, for instance. Kuri was, in John G. West's words, "born in Mexico of Lebanese Christian parents and fluent in several languges (including Arabic)." Walt enjoyed such people, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, when he had become a sophisticated international traveler. What West calls Kuri's "cosmopolitan outlook" would have recommended him to the Walt Disney of 1964. Kuri's first-person account of the button incident is in West's The Disney Live-Action Productions:
Walt didn't like Johnson at all ... and he was wearing a button saying, "I'm for Goldwater." I was wearing the same button. But before I entered the White House, I took the button off! Walt didn't. When he went into the White House, the aides to Johnson said, "Mr. Disney, please take that off." He said, "Why should I? I'm voting for him." You know he had the courage to do that. I didn't. I had to take my button off. That man had such tremendous courage.
But was Kuri even at the White House with Walt? There is no way to know for sure—there is no record at the LBJ Library in Austin of his presence, and the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank does not have passenger manifests for flights like the one Walt made to Washington in a company plane—but I've turned up no evidence to suggest that he was. Kuri's accounts of other incidents are so questionable that he cannot be accounted a reliable source about this one.
It seems likely that most versions of the button story have originated with one badly flawed source, Richard Schickel's 1968 book The Disney Version. Schickel writes: "When the President pinned the medal on him in 1964, Disney wore a small Goldwater button under his lapel, where Mr. Johnson could not miss it, and he had to be talked out of wearing one big enough to show in news photos." Here again, the idea that Walt wore the button under his lapel seems to be at odds with the idea that he wanted the President to see it.
So, the question remains: Could this implausible story be true? Did Walt Disney actually wear a Goldwater campaign button when he received the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson?
Yes. He did. And here's how that happened.
The White House announced on July 3, 1964, that Walt would be a recipient of the Medal of Freedom. His elder daughter, Diane Disney Miller, wrote to me last June, by email: "When he learned that he was to receive this honor, and that he was expected to go to the White House to receive it, I reacted with dismay. It was during the Goldwater campaign, and we were all united in enthusiastic support of the senator. I felt that it was all a ploy to surround LBJ with a group of people judged to be outstanding Americans....a powerful photo op. I was young and foolish, maybe, but passionate about my politics at this time." (Goldwater won the Republican nomination for president less than two weeks after the Medal of Freedom announcement.)
The White House ceremony was scheduled the Monday after the U.S. Lawn Bowling Championships at Buck Hill Falls, in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania near Scranton. "Another factor was that his White House visit would come at the end of a junket he had arranged to take his Beverly Hills lawn bowling team back east for one or several tournaments," Diane Miller told me. "He was passionate about lawn bowling at this time in his life. He expected that mother would accompany him, with his team and their spouses, but she was lukewarm about it. It would have been a fairly long trip in very close company with people she didn't know."
Instead, Lillian Disney stayed home, and Walt's secretary Tommie Wilck and her husband Tom accompanied her boss (who had given the bride away at the Wilcks' wedding in 1962). Walt bowled in the championships at Buck Hill Falls; a photo on the front page of the Stroudsburg (Pa.) Daily Record for September 14, 1964, is the only photo I've seen of him in action as a bowler.
Tommie Wilck died in 1985, but Tom Wilck is still active in public relations in southern California. I spoke with him in July by phone, and we have since been in touch by email. "At some point, Walt decided he wanted to wear a Goldwater button to the White House," he told me. "I was kind of involved in politics in those days, so he asked me to get him one.” Tom thought it was a bad idea, “so, kind of for fun, I got him a big one.” He wasn’t sure who supplied a small button—it may have been Tommie—but, in any case, Walt wound up with two campaign buttons, one large and one small. Diane Miller remembers the small button as a gold stud that combined the letter "G" and the numerals "64" (a description that Tom says "sounds right").
Walt wore the big button on the plane going to Washington, and the Wilcks were "very seriously concerned" that he might possibly wear it to the White House, even though they didn’t really think that he would. "I don't think he wore the larger button at all, after he got off the plane," Tom wrote to me recently, "and I’m very sure he didn’t wear it or even have it with him at the ceremony. ... To the best of my recollection there was only the small G64."
Tom remembers that Walt wore that button "under his lapel." He might have done that by inserting it in his buttonhole upside down, with the stem and clasp on the outside and the "G64" concealed inside, visible only if Walt flipped his lapel. My own best guess is that the stem and clasp of the "G64" stud are visible, barely, in the photo from the ceremony, and in the blowup from that photo at the left. It's certainly possible, though, that that grainy image is of something else. Walt might even have worn the button on his shirt and under his jacket. After 43 years, Tom Wilck simply isn't sure.
When Walt went to the podium to receive the medal from the President, he in some way tried to let Johnson know that he was wearing the Goldwater button. Tom Wilck writes: "It was when he was on the podium, when he and the President were face to face, and his back was somewhat toward us in the audience—so in thinking back—it’s hard to know even if he did flash it—or just touched his lapel for some reason. But my impression remains that he did flip the lapel."
Tom emphasizes that whatever the exact nature of Walt's gesture, it was not defiant or insulting. "It was more just an expression of a Midwestern sense of humor. If Walt had said anything—which I don't think he did—it would have been along the lines of 'I was going to wear this'—with a smile—'but they talked me out of it.' Or something like that."
Johnson "was not very happy about it...but I don't think anything was said between them," Tom said. LBJ was, in any case, already aware of Walt's support for Goldwater. It came up in one of his recorded telephone conversations on September 6, 1964, eight days before the Medal of Freedom ceremony, when Edwin L. Weisl Sr., a New York lawyer, told him that Walt, alone among Hollywood moguls, "likes Goldwater."
Tom Wilck thought that what Walt did would not have been obvious to anyone who wasn’t watching for just such a gesture: “Unless you were looking for it, you wouldn't have picked it up. It was a very casual thing.” Is it possible that Johnson himself didn't recognize what Walt was doing? "My guess would be that he knew, but he just ignored it. There may have been a remark or two, but I was watching it pretty closely, because I was invested in that Goldwater button, and I didn’t see any conversation."
Walt’s display of the Goldwater button "had no repercussions that we were aware of," Tom said. After the ceremony, “Walt gave us the limo,” and the Wilcks went to visit some relatives who lived in Maryland.
The Disney party's brief visit to Washington was actually an interlude in a trip otherwise dominated by lawn bowling. On the return trip, Walt and his companions stopped for several days (September 17-20) at Kalamazoo, Michigan, to visit with his friend Donald S. Gilmore, chairman of the board of Upjohn Pharmaceutical and a lawn bowler with Walt at Smoke Tree Ranch at Palm Springs. (The Disney-Upjohn ties were close then: Upjohn was one of the first corporate participants at Disneyland, and members of the Upjohn family had vacation homes at Smoke Tree, as did Walt and Gilmore.) Walt is wearing a large button in photos from the Kalamazoo stop, but Jim Korkis argues persuasively that the button is not a Goldwater campaign button but a well-known Disneyland button, emblazoned "I'm Goofy About Disneyland"
Back in Los Angeles, Walt told his daughter that he had worn the small button openly, contrary to Tom Wilck's recollection. Walt also said that he had worn the larger "Go Go Goldwater" button on the underside of his lapel. "He did not say that he had 'flashed' it," Diane Miller wrote to me in July, "but did say something like 'So if anyone said anything about it [the small button], I'd flash this [the larger button]... as if to say, 'which one do you prefer I wear?' Tom was there, and I wasn't, but this is the way he told it. ... Obviously he told many others about this, with the glee [of] a mischievous kid."
So, there's no question that Walt wore at least one Goldwater campaign button when he accepted the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson. The mischievous gesture that Tom Wilck remembered did not foreclose a friendly moment with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson after the ceremony, as the National Archives photo below shows, but it would be hard to argue that Walt was not guilty of bad manners.
Diane Disney Miller believes "that if mother had been with him, he might not have worn that lapel button. ... It was in bad taste not to remove it when he was received by the President. ... Dad did not respect Johnson, but did have great respect for the office he held. I was uneasy about what he said he'd done, but I did not let on. Rather, I probably said, 'Good for you!' or something like that. Alas, your animated man was not a perfect man. But he was not a coarse man. He did like to do the little unexpected 'cute' things ... like the bride and groom he designed for our wedding cake [the bride figure, representing Diane, was dressed in Levi's, and the groom figure, representing Ron Miller, was dressed in Bermuda shorts and bare feet—and a football helmet]. The consummate gag man."
Walt was also a man who was by nature an enthusiast, and in 1964, unusually for him —although he had been a committed Republican for years—politics had become one of his enthusiasms. He had gotten to know General Dwight Eisenhower on social occasions at Palm Springs, and in July 1964, just a few days after the Medal of Freedom announcement, he visited the GOP national convention in San Francisco and was photographed there with the former president and his son, John. There was an even stronger personal bond at work in that year's elections: his old friend (and fellow train enthusiast), the actor George Murphy, was running for the United States Senate as a Republican. Walt encouraged Murphy to run, chaired a fund-raising dinner, and lent his name and photo to a campaign mailing.
By wearing a Goldwater button, Walt may have been sticking up for his friends. Probably a mix of motives was at work: loyalty to fellow Republicans, sharp political differences with Johnson, and, not least, I suspect, a lingering small boy's urge to engage in a little deviltry.
In writing about the Medal of Freedom ceremony, I've consistently expressed skepticism about the Goldwater-button story. I didn't mention it in The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, because I thought the sources were vague and suspect. Other authors have not been as cautious, and it turns out that their versions of the button story—however confused in their details—are to some extent anchored in the truth. But they've proved to be right for what I think is the wrong reason: because they accepted something as correct, even when they had no reason to believe that it was. That is, alas, the prevailing standard in a great deal of what has been written about Walt and his studio.
I've been wrong about the button story for what I think is the right reason: I couldn't back up what the other authors accepted without question. I certainly could have done more, however. Although I wasn't in touch with Diane Miller when I was finishing my book, I didn't try to talk to Tom Wilck, who wasn't hard to find when I finally sought him out. I had read Richard Hubler's 1968 interview with Tommie Wilck, in which she talks about the trip to Washington—including a visit to the Lincoln Memorial before the White House ceremony—but doesn't mention the Goldwater button. I think that lulled me into believing that talking to Tom really wasn't necessary.
But where Walt Disney is concerned, I realized long ago, there's always something new to learn. That's what makes researching and writing about him so fascinating, so frustrating, and, ultimately, such an enormous pleasure.
To read my postings in the "What's New" Archives about the button story—most of them expressing my (unjustified) skepticism about its validity—you can go to the entries for June 27, June 14, June 10, March 12, January 30, and January 29, all in 2007. I've drawn extensively on those postings in compiling this essay.
[Posted August 24, 2007]