Walt Liked Ike

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Recently, we have all been bombarded with television campaign ads (that according to one source have cost more than $3 billion to produce and air…yes, billions…) and I was curious where it all started. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, just like a famous mouse, it all began with Walt.

In the September 19, 2010, issue of the Orlando Sentinel, it was reported that, since the start of 2009, Walt Disney World had doubled its contributions to Florida’s Republican Party. It totaled $525,000 in money (different Disney entities like the Disney Vacation Club, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Gift Card Services, etc. can each make separate contributions so that the grand total exceeds the maximum amount allowed by state law from one company) and $53,000 in tickets, rooms and meals. Its contributions to the Florida Democratic Party totaled $246,000.

Companies do not make campaign contributions merely in the interest of good government. Companies make contributions in the interest of being heard on issues like restricting lawsuits from slip and fall accidents, limits on fees trial lawyers can earn in workers’ compensation cases, and supporting more publicly funded tourism advertising.

Actually, this Disney tradition of sending contribution money to the Republican Party has its roots in the time of Walt himself. Take, for instance, bank check No. 847 signed by Walt Disney from his personal Bank of America account dated November 12, 1959, and payable to the Republican National Finance Committee in the amount of $1,000. The notation on the left side of the check reads "Contribution." The back of the check bears the endorsement of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Robert V. Fleming, Treasurer.

After the infamous Disney strike in 1941, Walt became more and more conservative and veered toward the Republican Party, being an active supporter of Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and, of course, Dwight Eisenhower.

Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was a World War II hero. By the end of the war, he had supreme command of all operational Allied forces. Eventually he was named supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and was in charge of those forces in Europe after the war.

He retired from the service in May 1952. Both the Democrats and the Republicans wanted him to run in the fall 1952 U.S. Presidential election. Rather than a career politician, Eisenhower was a private citizen who had remained nonpartisan, citing an Army regulation forbidding partisan political activity by serving officers.

However, Republicans coined the phrase “I Like Ike” as early as spring 1951 and Republican New York Governor Thomas Dewey and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. helped create an organization called “National Citizens for Eisenhower.”

Jacqueline Cochran was a successful cosmetics executive and one of the most famous female pilots in the world. She was the first woman pilot to break the sound barrier. In February 1952, she helped sponsor a massive rally at Madison Square Garden for Eisenhower supporters. The arena held 16,000 people but more than 25,000 showed up. Even New York’s Finest couldn’t get people to leave. Cochran flew to Paris with a three-hour tribute film that documented the rally to show to Eisenhower personally. It finally convinced the general to run for president. Ike and Cochran remained close friends for the rest of his life.

What does all this have to do with Walt Disney? Well, during the 1952 campaign, Cochran contacted Roy O. Disney at the Disney Studios and persuaded him to produce a black-and-white animated television commercial in support of Eisenhower’s candidacy.

Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate to use television commercials. In fact, his opponent, Democrat Adali Stevenson, wouldn’t appear on television because he thought it was demeaning for a man striving to be president. While there were a handful of Stevenson television ads (including some animated ones like “Platform Double Talk” with a two-headed GOP politician taking both sides of any issue), Stevenson himself did not personally appear in any of his television commercials.

"The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process,” Stevenson stated.

However, Madison Avenue advertising executive Rosser Reeves (responsible for the M&M slogan “melts in your mouth, not in your hand”) was very persuasive in convincing Eisenhower that short ads played during such popular TV programs, such as I Love Lucy, could reach more voters than any other form of advertising.

In a confidential memo about the proposed campaign, Reeves (who worked for Ted Bates and Company and in reality looked and acted like he stepped out of an episode of Mad Men) wrote, “His [Eisenhower’s] top advisers know that is going to take plenty of work, lots of money, plus something new and something extra and special….the humble radio or TV ‘spot’ can deliver more listeners for less money than any other form of advertising.”

The result was a series of “staged” commercials where “average citizens” asked Ike questions and he responded. (Reportedly, each of these sections were filmed seperately at different times but a smiling, confident Ike came across as listening to the person and knowing all the answers in a quick sound bite.) These commercials were called “Eisenhower Answers America”. It was a series of twenty-five 20 second and one minute spots to be released twelve days before the election to flood the airwaves.

However, the most frequently run (and supposedly most popular) Eisenhower campaign advertisement was produced quickly by the Disney Studios. The actual spot (and the song created by the Disney Studio) was officially called “We’ll Take Ike (to Washington).”

Officially, 225 prints of the one-minute spot and 210 prints of the 2-second spot were shipped to the largest television stations in the country.

“Since the election, we have been advised by these stations that these cartoon spots were played more than any of the other Eisenhower television films,” said Disney producer Bill Anderson in November 1952.

In my personal collection, I have a copy of the spot that runs about two and a half minutes. It features additional material book-ended on to the familiar one-minute spot that is posted at a variety of Websites like this one (link).

The additional material begins with a little, confused animated “everyman” overwhelmed by all the issues of the day, from war to lower wages: “I’ve listened to everyone. I’ve tried but who’s right? What are the facts?”

The film cuts to a dapper business-suited live-action actor who remarks that the confusion is natural but “beyond all the words, beyond all the claims, there is actually just one thing on which most people base their final decision…the man.”

Then, my version segues into the well-known advertisement. At the end, the live-action actor again appears and states, “Those were the voices of the people. What’s your decision? Who will you vote for?” The little animated everyman now wears an “I Like Ike” button and smiles, “Me? I like Ike!”

Then there is silent footage of Eisenhower accepting his nomination at the Republican National Convention while the voiceover says “The National Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon have presented this message to all thinking voters regardless of party affiliation.”

The body of the one-minute commercial is filled with a catchy tune and repeating animation cycles. A strutting Uncle Sam wearing an “Ike” button on his lapel leads a parade of regular citizens marching to the nation’s capitol where a shining sun with the name “Ike” in the middle rises in the air. Those steadfast American citizens include young parents pushing a baby carriage, a cowboy, a house painter, a baker, a railroad engineer, a fireman, a draftsman and even a milkmaid.

The parade includes a large gray elephant draped with a banner featuring a caricature of Eisenhower’s face. The elephant beats his tail on a drum pulled behind him to help rally the spirits of the placard and banner carrying supporters. All these folks are marching to the right and briefly in the background is a shadowy figure (implying it is Eisenhower’s opponent Stevenson) riding a donkey the wrong way to the left.

Ike for President. Ike for President. Ike for President.
You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike for President.
Bring out the banners, beat the drums, we'll take Ike to Washington.
We don't want John or Dean or Harry. Let's do that big job right.
Let's get in step with the guy that's hep. Get in step with Ike.
You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike for president.
Bring out the banners, beat the drums, we'll take Ike to Washington.
We've got to get where we are going, travel day and night.
Let Adlai go the other way. We'll all go with Ike.
You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike for President.
Bring out the banners, beat the drums, we'll take Ike to Washington.
We'll take Ike to Washington!”

The “John, Dean or Harry” mentioned in the song and caricatured as donkeys were meant to suggest Stevenson’s running mate John Sparkman, Dean Acheson (Truman's secretary of state) and Harry Truman.

After the triumphant arrival at the domed capitol, the voiceover announcer (the narrator and writer of the True-Life Adventure series, Winston Hibler) states: “Now is the time for all good Americans to come to the aid of their country.” (By voting for Eisenhower, of course!)

The Disney Studios put together an autographed cel set up for several people directly involved in Eisenhower’s campaign. These included  Arthur Summerfield (who Ike made his postmaster general), Paul Hoffman (an influential, if unofficial adviser), Paul Helms (whose Smoke Tree Ranch Home was used as a vacation spot by Ike) and Tex McCray (who helped stage the Madison Square Garden rally). In addition, an autographed cel setup was sent to Jacqueline Cochran.

Producer Bill Anderson wrote to Cochran in November 19, 1952:

“I am enclosing an autographed cel setup for yourself, and an autographed cel setup and a copy of the song 'We’ll Take Ike' for General Eisenhower. The cel setups were prepared from the original art material used in the television spot, ‘We’ll Take Ike.’

“We prepared several of these and rather than send them all to General Eisenhower, we sent one to Mr. Arthur Summerfield, Mr. Paul Hoffman, Mr. Paul Helms, Mr. Tex McCrary, and yourself. We thought all of you would get a kick out of them as a souvenir.

“We have sent General Eisenhower’s to you as the original idea for a television spot was yours and we think you are the logical one to pass them on to him. Thanks again for rallying us to the Eisenhower Band Wagon and we hope you will enjoy this autographed cel setup as a memento of the campaign.

“All of us here take this opportunity to thank you for the part you played in putting the idea of a television spot over. We had a great deal of fun in making the films and it was with pride that we viewed our work on television night after night. For most of us, this was our first active political campaign.

“Naturally, we are all very happy that General Eisenhower was elected President with landslide proportions and we like to think that our films contributed in a small way. Producing these films taught us a lesson; we found out just how quickly we could put a one minute spot together and get prints distributed on a nation-wide basis.”

Walt’s brother, Roy Oliver Disney also wrote to Cochran a few days earlier on November 14, 1952: “The boys and girls all enjoyed working on the project and, of course, we are all very happy at the outcome of the election. Kindest regards.”

Roy also included a list of the Disney employees who contributed their time and efforts to the cartoon. That list and other related correspondence is in the Jacqueline Cochran Papers, Eisenhower Campaign Series, Box 2, in the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan., patiently awaiting some other researcher to journey there and reveal its contents.

Walt became an active part of the People to People program to aid in international understanding started by Eisenhower in 1956. In fact, Walt and Ike occasionally saw each other socially in Palm Springs. Walt was photographed with the former president at the 1964 Republican National Convention.

In 1965, Walt Disney received the George Washington Award for promoting the American Way of Life from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who read the citation in a ceremony, praised the entertainer as an artist who excelled in “communicating the hope and aspirations of our free society to the far corners of the planet.”

The Disney Studios never made another political campaign advertisement.

If you like these types of oddball stories of Disney history, I would recommend you pick up a copy of my recent book, The Vault of Walt (link) as a Christmas gift for yourself, a friend or even to use as a doorstop since it more than 460 pages for only $20.

Thirty-eight more stories just like this one about the nooks and crannies of Disney history. Folks have seemed to like it.