With this post, we can begin to explore the attractions in our upper half of the rankings.  And with it, we can begin, tentatively, to discuss what makes attractions great, memorable, or in some way a core component to a good Walt Disney World visit during their time of operation.  Each of these ten rides innovated the theme park experience in some way, and filled out the parks with enjoyable attractions of minor scale, or else they were attempted headliners that were fun, but didn’t quite live up to their potential.   I ran the numbers on my provisional rankings’ top 40, and they ran thusly: 15 for Magic Kingdom, 16 for Epcot, 4 for Hollywood Studios, and 5 for Animal Kingdom.  It sounds about right, given the lack of attractions for Animal Kingdom, the excellence of 80s and 90s Epcot, and Hollywood Studios’ perennial under-performance.

40.  Universe of Energy/Ellen’s Energy Adventure (Epcot, 1982-present):  When I was young, I thought the Universe of Energy was a terrible bore, a plodding treatment of an uninteresting topic.  Through the miracle of youtube, I can see how wrong that I was: the kinetic mosaic was a brilliant, dynamic pre-show, the ride vehicles moved by the pavilion’s own solar energy were years ahead of their time, and the large-scale dinosaurs constituted a step forward in the development of animatronics.  I honestly couldn’t tell you which was better–the original or the mid-90s update, Ellen’s Energy Adventure with DeGeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy.  I like them both.  By an astonishing act of foresight, Disney picked two celebrity hosts (well, three, counting Trebek) who are still relevant, and if anything, bigger than they were in 1996.  The result was perhaps less intellectual, but much more fun, making Universe of Energy accessible to audiences beyond seniors and engineers.  Nye, especially, has a genius for explaining complicated scientific concepts in entertaining ways that the public can understand.  But they need to update this soon: with Exxon-Mobil no longer in sponsoring, Disney is free to present to a more sustainable vision of energy beyond petroleum (which has made great strides since 1996 anyway.)

I don’t know where else to put this, but maybe my single most pleasant memory from Disney World is lying on a knoll on the west side of Future World after visiting Ellen’s Energy Adventure with my dad and my brother during the 1996 trip.  My mom had gone off to a restroom, and we were enjoying a nice warm and breezy night en route to the Wonders of Life pavilion.  It felt like the best night ever, and there were still countless other awesome dark rides we could see in Epcot that night: Horizons, Spaceship Earth, Imagination, Living With the Land.  That feeling is the one thing I most miss from 90s Disney World.  Today, most of Future World closes at 7 pm (there was nothing more magical than Future World at night), and what rides are open usually require a fastpass or committing a large block of time in line.

39.  Festival of the Lion King (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present):  Animal Kingdom opened within a year of Julie Taymor’s prodigious reimagining of the film for Broadway, so it was almost inevitable that the park would attempt to recreate it in some way.  The result, however, is much more of an immersive family experience than an archetypical Broadway production, but lots of the Afro-centric elements of folk art remained.  The performance involved a great deal of audience interaction, all of the requisite songs, lots of colorful floats with animatronics, and a strong circus theme that unites the performance.  It hits all the right notes: it is fun, it is a bit arty, it entertains kids and adults, and most importantly, it does this without infantilizing or exoticizing Africa.  How impressed was I?  Well, it is the only attraction in my top 40 that I only saw once.

38.  Dinosaur/Countdown to Extinction (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present):  Let’s face it: Countdown to Extinction was a kickass name; it’s a shame that they changed it to help promote a now-forgotten Disney computer-animated film.  This was (and remains) the anchor attraction for the entire Dinoland USA area of Animal Kingdom, and used EMV technology to simulate a frantic journey through the last days of the Cretaceous era.  It includes some impressive environments and great next-generation animatronics that improve upon the Universe of Energy dinosaurs.  My only real problem is the script: large parts of this just involve the mad scientist trying to retrieve the Iguanadon simply announcing what dinosaur you are passing by after a close encounter with near-death and blithely informing you it is “not our dino” and moving on.  Still, it is an indispensable part of a trip to Animal Kingdom.

37.  Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin (Magic Kingdom, 1998-present):  One of the most fun, if least edifying, rides in the Magic Kingdom stable.  It was the first sign of the metamorphosis of Tomorrowland from a steampunky Edwardian vision of Tomorrowland to a showcase for futuristic rides based on existing Disney properties.  I’m still piecing together how I feel about that, but the ride works because it is addictive and competitive.  I talked earlier about how some rides aren’t easy to revisit; you experience them once, and you don’t need to go again any time soon.  If you ride Buzz Lightyear once, you remember your score, you realize your mistakes, and you want to get back in line immediately.  It’s a milestone in theme park technology, and even though I miss its predecessor Dreamflight, I still enjoy a good spin.

36.  Liberty Square Riverboat (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  A day in a theme park should never be a mere litany of rides.  It is a collection of experiences.  The sturdy perennial riverboat ride is one of my favorites from the Magic Kingdom because it invites you to make your own adventure, whether you sit indoors or outdoors, talk with your family, talk with strangers, or observe the vistas of Tom Sawyer Island.  When I am on Thunder Mountain, I think “I am on a roller coaster.”  When I am aboard the Liberty Belle, I think “I’ve arrived on the frontier.”  It is one of the least complex and least unique of Disney rides (if you wanted to, there are probably dozens of places along the Mississippi or Missouri where you can ride an old-fashioned riverboat), but one of its most affective within its Frontierland and Liberty Square setting.

35.  Kitchen Kabaret (Epcot, 1982-1994):  Every Epcot attraction, I think, had an ancestor in the Magic Kingdom or Disneyland.  World of Motion had roots in the stagecraft of Pirates of the Caribbean, Horizons was conceptualized as a sequel to Carousel of Progress, El Rio de Tiempo echoed It’s A Small World.  Kitchen Kabaret was designed in the same vein as Country Bear Jamboree, a quick-paced revue, but with a more educational topic than the Ozark-bound bruins: the four food groups.  (Yikes…that’s very 1980s, isn’t it?)  `It conveyed a message of balanced eating and good nutrition very nicely, and it had a lot of cool touches for those inclined to pay attention: the Cereal Sisters were a nice homage to the Andrews Sisters, the Stars of the Milky Way had a nod to Mae West and other 30s sex symbols, and I especially liked the Hamm and Eggz Vaudeville duo.

34.  Body Wars (Epcot, 1989-2007):  When the Wonders of Life opened its doors, along with Body Wars, its marquee attraction, Epcot had to deal with something new: having a thrill ride.  Body Wars was hot, with lines lasting over an hour, and often winding outside of the Metlife-sponsored pavilion.  Using some early computer-generated technology, it was a fun romp through the human body to rescue a miniaturized scientist swept up in the bloodstream.  Parts of this ride were absurd, even for Disney standards: they need to go to the brain for an emergency “electrical charge” for example, but Leonard Nimoy directed a fun and frantic introduction to human physiology.  I haven’t met anyone who thinks its cousin Star Tours wasn’t better, but its pioneering use of simulator technology for entertainment, and its introduction of some mild thrills to a cerebral theme park makes it an important milestone, and a fondly remembered part of any Epcot visit during the 90s.

33.  O Canada (Epcot, 1982-present):  Let me be clear: I am ranking the original version of this attraction that premiered on opening day, 1982: my pick as the best circle-vision film shown in a Disney park.  There were numerous arresting and breathtaking scenes: a circle of Mounties riding through all nine screens, breathtaking natural scenery, a ride down a bobsled chute, and most especially, a visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal.  (The last is, I think, the most profound treatment of religion in a Disney attraction.)  The enduring criticism of this film was that it posed a very limited image of Canada restricted to “wilderness and lumberjacks.”  But that was the point, and what’s more, it worked– it gave me an awe and reverence for Canada’s natural beauty.  Unfortunately, the 2007 reshoot of this film was disastrous.  It was hosted by Martin Short, a lazy choice given his established history in Disney attractions, and his narration is full of forced humor, and is poorly written and badly delivered.  But it wasn’t just wholly Short’s fault.  Some Canadian urban booster league clearly hijacked the production, because the narrative insists on taking us to every major city in Canada (I don’t need to see Calgary in Circle-vision, thank you very much), cuts out most of the outdoors scenes that made the original so good, and incessantly lobs jokes at Short’s expense.  It was one of the worst updates in the history of the Disney parks, but I’ll never forget the rustic charm and beautiful cinematography of the original.

32.  Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios, 1999-present):  This particular ride does not fit especially well with the theme of movies that MGM/Hollywood Studios is premised upon, but it is so much fun, and such an uncharacteristically wild ride that I make a point of visiting when I am in the park.  Aerosmith was a great choice to host this attraction– solid rock credentials, and multi-generational appeal.  It is by far the most extreme roller coaster on Disney property (although somewhat tame compared to other coasters in the Orlando area), and the only one that flips its guests upside-down.  While some of the props used to construct the night-time LA highway system are silly and superficially constructed, I’ll give it a pass: the ride is far too fast to really take note of any of that.  What really makes the experience is the take-off: from 0 to 55 pm in just a few seconds.  It is the single most thrilling attraction in the WDW pantheon.

31.  World of Motion (Epcot, 1982-1996):  Early 1980s Epcot turned the animatronic-filled dark ride into a form of high art, and World of Motion was a solid essay in that craft.     Its “journey through history” at times overlapped with Spaceship Earth a bit, but the World of Motion struck a more colloquial and jocular tone.  It was also one of the more overtly corporate entries in Future World and General Motors flaunted its sponsorship: every form of transportation before the advent of the automobile has some kind of humorous flaw that each scene exploits: bicycles capsize into mud, stagecoaches fall prey to bandits, sea voyages end in a close encounter with a monster.  It balanced the mildly humorous with the cool and innovative: the last 3 or 4 minutes included some great tunnel special effects that made you feel like you were moving through futuristic vistas.  This tended to be a favorite of senior citizens and younger guests (like my little brother) who were obsessed with cars.

Jackson-PortraitCategory: Tyrant

Term in Office: Sixth president, 1829-1837

Party: Democratic

Home State: Tennessee

It has been a very long journey to the bottom of our presidential rankings countdown.  Although my “next lowest, then the next highest” system meant I would have tackled #2 before I addressed the bottom rung, I’ve chosen to go a tiny bit out of order to write on the president who holds down the lowest, most ignoble, most disgraceful spot on our rankings.  We’ve covered all kinds of characteristics attendant to bad presidents in our bottom 10 or 12: Andrew Johnson’s humorlessness and rigidity, Calvin Coolidge’s sociopathy, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan putting partisan success over national unity, Warren Harding’s petty corruption, Polk and Bush 43’s unjust war-making, and Nixon’s suspicion and paranoia.

Back in the spring of 2006 (geez…that’s almost a decade!), I did an independent study of the antebellum presidency with Richard E. Ellis at UB.  Ellis was one of the great historians of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian era of U.S. politics, and I was lucky to work with someone of his caliber.  Yet by the same token, he was also fiercely resistant to addressing American history from subaltern perspectives of women, blacks, Native Americans, young people, immigrants, or any other disempowered group (he once dismissed Anne Hutchinson as a “menopausal maniac” during one lecture on the Puritans.)  He never stopped believing that these were politically motivated distractions from what was really important.  Ellis was the last of his kind; I doubt very much a man like him who exclusively did “dead white president” history could get hired today outside of Christian colleges (ironically, Ellis himself was a secular Jew), or academic chairs funded by conservative institutes.  So, I read perhaps a dozen different interpretations of Jackson during that time, from suggestions Dr. Ellis made.  Virtually none of them took Jackson’s human rights violations against the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Seminoles, and other First Nations seriously.  Arthur Schlesinger, whose Age of Jackson was the gold standard on this era for a generation, omitted the issue almost entirely.  (It would have ruined his thesis that Jackson was a proto-New Dealer.  Or would it?)   They, too, either thought that dwelling too much on this facet, or considering the First Nations perspective, to be a sidelight to the “real story”- the expansion of democracy, and the rise of Jackson’s as the “people’s” champion against the “interests.”

I disagree, of course.  Indian removal isn’t so much the true “real story” so much as it is intertwined with the other policies Jackson pursued in office.  It was woven into the whole cloth that was Andrew Jackson’s complex, but almost wholly deleterious, presidency.  Jackson’s popularity partly came out of his reputation as an Indian fighter, and his advocacy for expanding the frontier, even (or especially) at the expense of indigenous groups already there.  And it bespoke Jackson’s imperious personality that eschewed abstract concepts like law and justice in favor of a prism that saw politics in personal and honor-bound terms.   The real story is the paradox of how our first Democratic and first democratically elected president was the one whose administration was least governed by democratic spirit or principles.

And much of this paradox lies in the character of Andrew Jackson himself.  As a general, there is a disturbing pattern of Andrew Jackson ignoring orders and taking the law into his own hands, even when it risked war.  He wasn’t a general who thrived in organization and in working with civilian leaders, like the best “general presidents” Washington and Eisenhower.  His military career consisted almost wholly of battlefield heroics where any success relied on almost blind luck or overwhelming advantage rather than any particular strategic genius.  Oftentimes, such as his almost-certainly illegal invasion of the Floridas, he got away with it only because it yielded a politically expedient result, and to censure Jackson was to court the people’s wrath.

The problem for Andrew Jackson was that he viewed politics almost entirely in terms of personal alliances and grievances, a manifestation of the clannish and honor-bound aspects of Appalachian polity that thrived in longstanding feuds and the code duello.  (To wit, Jackson killed or seriously injured multiple individuals upon the field of honor.)  Indeed, reputation was often considered more important than the abstractions of law.

To set the context for this, Jackson rose to fame as a hero of the masses at a time when the modern two-party system was in its earliest stages of development.  The Democratic Party formed out of the ashes of Jefferson’s old Democratic-Republican Party,  fancying itself as the party of the common man.  The party stood for little, except perhaps for low protective tariffs and states’ rights, a conceit that allowed them to punt on controversial issues by saying “let the states decide for themselves”.  In this manner, they were able to become the party of the Southern plantation owner eager to check the overactive conscience of the Whigs, the Indian huntin’ frontiersman and the worker in nascent New York factories alike.  It was, as historian Donald Cole attests, “a broad coalition of conflicting interest groups” and thus it had a stake in kicking crucial decisions like, say, the expansion of slavery or free labor, down the road, rather than address them forthrightly.

This mantle of the “people’s party” made the common man look to Andrew Jackson as a champion of sorts- a military hero (remember, the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans was a national holiday for decades), and a man cut from their cloth (a mistaken impression; Jackson was of nearly aristocratic descent).  Jackson’s inauguration was filled with the salt of the earth (others might have called them “the rabble”) drinking the punch, stealing the sundries, and stamping bits of cheese into the White House carpets.  Jackson was surely the beneficiary of the rise of popular (that is, universal white male) democracy–bereft of the old requirements of property ownership–although he did little personally to advance that cause.

This, in turn, contributed to the politicization (perhaps even the weaponization) of public office.  If you look at every president before Jackson, they certainly doled out the choicest positions in government to their allies, but beyond this, they tended to be more meritocratic for the lesser posts.  Jackson forfeited this practice, and as a result, most posts in government were filled with avaricious time-servers and ineffectual loyalists.  Perhaps the low-water mark of Jackson’s appointments was Samuel Swartwout, a staunch supporter of his election. As Collector of the Port of New York, he embezzled one and a quarter million dollars from the federal coffers while illegally aiding Texan independence.  Even beyond this, look at his cabinet sometime, and you will see the same tendencies of favoring loyalty over merit and qualification.  Martin Van Buren might be a famous name, but he had virtually no experience in foreign affairs, making him a very poor choice to serve as Secretary of State; he was appointed only for his valuable New York connections.

Time and time again, Jackson made grudges personal, and he was often incapable of forgiveness, indifferent to mercy, and unable to differentiate his own judgment from the public good.  Recall that this is the man who brought the government to a standstill over the honor of Peggy Eaton, an ethically suspect wife of his Secretary of War.  Jackson (perhaps remembering how his own wife was maligned as a bigamist during the 1824 election) was convinced she was “chaste as a virgin” and fit for polite company, and would not relent until the rest of his cabinet (and their wives) deigned to entertain her socially.  Everybody but Van Buren resigned in protest, resulting in a needless reshuffling of the government.

Or else, consider the Nullification crisis, often seen as Jackson’s finest hour, a decisive and manly confrontation with the forces of secession usually used to counter the equivocally of Pierce and Buchanan in most histories.  This, too, devolved into a personal conflict with its ringleader (and former Jackson vice-president) John C. Calhoun.  Dr. Ellis was probably right when he said that, ideologically, this amounted to two different interpretations of states rights rather than Jackson unilaterally championing the idea of union.  If you really distill it to its essence, though, it was actually more of a personal vendetta to kneecap Calhoun, a need to impose his will over him and vanquish his enemies rather than resolve the crisis (and indeed, when we look at the forty subsequent years, he did not resolve the issue of secession at all.)

Similarly, he turned the decision to renew the Second Bank of the United States–a major choice about the fiscal destiny of the country–into a small-minded contest over personal honor.  Jackson, who had been cheated by bankers as a young speculator, never forgot the experience, and this was compounded by his feuds with mercantile interests and moneyed powers aligned with John Quincy Adams and arguably Jackson’s greatest enemy, Henry Clay.  The Second Bank was big–its capital was about two times as large as the entire operating budget of the federal government, and Jackson saw it as a latent tyrannical force, an octopus with tentacles in every corner of public life, as another historian, Robert Remini, put it.  And he drew particular ire toward the bank’s president, the slightly effete and fussy Nicholas Biddle, in whose pudgy face he saw every well-mannered aristocrat who ever looked down on him.

He vetoed the bill.  It was within his rights, certainly, but here’s the distinction: every presidential veto before this was done on the grounds of concerns about the bill’s constitutionality.  Jackson knew perfectly well the recharter bill was constitutional.  Instead, for the first time, he vetoed a bill entirely because he disagreed with its politics.  It was a momentous decision, one that played a large role in turning the president into a political actor, and as a force that could shape legislation.  However, it also dismantled the only institution keeping the country’s fragile and confusing financial system in place.  In the wake of Jackson’s veto, he removed federal deposits in the bank, fired two Secretaries of the Treasury, and forced Biddle to demand repayment of loans in hard currency to refinance his bank, and triggering a recession.  Jackson’s “Specie Circular”, demanding that money for federal lands be paid in gold and silver, was even more ruinous, and a trigger for the Panic of 1837, one of the worst in our history.  All this to satiate his dislike of big city bankers.  And we put this guy on our printed money!  (By the way, I fully support this campaign to put some women on the $20 bill instead; I voted for Shirley Chisholm, but the winner, Harriet Tubman, would also be a great choice.)

The worst part of it, though, was Jackson’s lack of accountability; he never saw himself as being subject to law.  Like Nixon after him, he saw himself unilaterally as the law.  He was the general whose judgment always prevailed, who could hang men and invade foreign soil arbitrarily whenever he wished.  Small wonder he was the first president censured by Congress (for withholding documents pertaining to his Bank Veto).  Jackson could not accept that there were restraints–legal restraints, moral restraints, whatever–preventing him from carrying out his will.

There has been a lot of talk- much of it legitimate- about the imperial presidency, the legality of executive orders, and the role of Congress and the Supreme Court in checking presidential power.  But these arguments have nothing on Andrew Jackson, our first, and perhaps only, truly lawless president.  When Chief Justice Marshall wrote his decision Worcester vs. Georgia upholding Indian claims to the land, Jackson is said to have uttered the quote: “Mr. Marshall has made his decision.  Now let him enforce it!” but this is almost certainly apocryphal, and there wasn’t much in the decision for Jackson to carry out.  It does, though, neatly echo Jackson’s response, ignoring a Supreme Court decision, and with it, the concept of the rule of law itself.

So, let’s survey the wreckage: an inhumane act of ethnic cleansing, the hopeless politicization of government work, unforced errors that ruined the American banking system.  My friend Rick, a very solid historian of British and American academic exchanges during the 1800s, believes that Jackson single-handedly delayed universal suffrage in the United Kingdom by decades.  Any Tory MP would be wholly justified in using Jackson to show what would happen if you entrust just anybody with the franchise. It doesn’t disprove the value of democracy, but it does demonstrate the danger of demagoguery, when appeals to the people are unchecked by policy competence and moral insight.

Andrew Jackson had many of the markers of a successful president: he was elected handily twice, he led a new viable coalition of voters, he supported the expansion of democracy, and with some struggles, he got much of his program through Congress.  Ultimately, this is why Jackson is our worst president: because he used his considerable gifts for such ruinous and unjust ends.  The size of the federal government was small back then, but Jackson used its fullest force to enhance the privilege of white settlers at the expense of the First Nations.  He used the presidency (whose power he played a key role in strengthening) not for the cause of justice, but to satisfy, even to the point of violence at times, resentment and grievance on a national scale.  Andrew Jackson is, in the end, the only president I can characterize as a tyrant, and as such, he is the worst president in this ranking.

Thank you for sticking with me as we slowly work our way to the pinnacle of our countdown of the greatest Disney World attractions.  If you are just joining us, remember that I am only ranking attractions I have been on, and this is my own very subjective list, one weighted heavily toward my love of 80s Epcot dark rides.  With this post, we reach and exceed our halfway point through this journey.  So, take small children by the hand and step onto the moving platform.  Por favor mantenganse allejado de las puertas

50.  Wonders/Reflections of China (1982-present):  The China pavilion was a last-minute addition to Epcot, when the People’s Republic, beyond all hope or expectation, signed off on taking part in the World Showcase, less than a decade after Nixon’s historic trip.  Accordingly, Wonders of China was the first glimpse into the Celestial Kingdom for many Americans who either weren’t able to visit, or whose interest in Asia was not yet sparked.  The film-making team, working quickly under constant surveillance and sometimes having to use footage by Deng’s team rather than Imagineering’s, still delivered big time.  The result is a very watchable, very compelling, but rarely brilliant, foray that sketches China’s major cities and most beautiful scenery, without delving into inconvenient questions of human rights.  It could be disjointed, but the use of the jovial character of Li Bai, the 9th century poet, was a clever device to welcome the viewer and transition between otherwise unconnected scenes.  It was re-cut about a decade ago; while some updating was necessary (China has become much more developed since 1982, after all), it also cut the film from 19 minutes to 12.5, which is a real shame.

49.  Peter Pan’s Flight (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  Still levitating above the skies of London 44 years after the park opened, Peter Pan’s Flight keeps going strong, and it is the first Disney World attraction that I can distinctly and clearly remember riding.  In fact, long lines are perennial here, owing partly to its popularity and partly to its low capacity; it was one of the very first rides in the park to be retrofitted with Fastpass.  Nowadays, you have to use one of your precious passes on a 3-minute kiddie ride, or make it one of your first priorities of the day.  The ride works because of a remarkably simple conceit- that you fly above the scenes rather than ride past them.  As a simple way to fulfill a flying fantasy without riding anything scary or subjecting yourself to the central Florida sun, it remains a Magic Kingdom mainstay.

48.  Alien Encounter (Magic Kingdom, 1995-2003):  It sounds crazy, but this was once one of the park’s signature attractions and the marquee accomplishment of the New Tomorrowland.  The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World even based their touring plans in the mid-90s around starting the day with either a Space Mountain/Alien Encounter or Splash Mountain/Thunder Mountain one-two punch.  All of this came with a much darker tone than had been seen before in a Disney park.  The pre-show includes a robot who tortures a harmless-looking creature in a teleportation demonstration, and the show itself takes place in the dark as holograms and sound effects make you think that an alien has busted loose and is wantonly eating members of the audience.  And this all happens as you are pinned down in a harness and can’t escape.  It was thrilling, and it was funny in parts, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the tone was out of place for a Disney park.  Ask anybody who has experienced this, and I’ll bet they distinctly remember lots of children- and many who were older- crying through the duration of this ride without an opportunity to leave or be comforted.  Clearly, Eisner thought the parks needed to appeal more directly to teenagers, but surely there must have been a better way.  It looks better in hindsight, though, having been replaced by the turgid Stitch’s Great Escape, a strong contender for the worst attraction in the history of Disney World.

47.  Primeval Whirl (Animal Kingdom, 2002-present):  When Animal Kingdom opened, it had a signifiant problem: there wasn’t much to do, especially for smaller kids and teens.  And so, a controversial choice was made- to open up a park-within-a-park themed after roadside America…with dinosaurs!  This included Primeval Whirl, a “wild mouse” style roller-coaster.  However, this one also had a lot of spinning as your vehicle went on its track, lending an unpredictable element to this ride.  I remember the first time I rode in 2005, with my brother and his girlfriend.  I distinctly recall there being way too much room for just three of us, and slamming into each other on some of the turns, more forcefully than it seemed Imagineering intended.  On one hairpin turn, I thought “I feel distinctly unsafe on this,” the first time I felt this way on a Disney ride.  Somehow, it made me appreciate Primeval Whirl even more!

46.  Cranium Command (Epcot, 1989-2007):  This was perhaps Epcot Center’s hidden gem, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Wonders of Life pavilion, and pleasing audiences without very much pomp or fanfare, overshadowed by its neighbor, Body Wars.  It is a fun way to teach how the brain orders the body’s various functions and impulses in our everyday life, as rookie brain-pilot Buzzy is assigned the most challenging brain of all: a pre-teen boy.  Imagineering made some smart choices with the casting: the Hans and Franz guys from SNL as the left and right ventricles of the heart (to pump…you…up!), George Wendt as the stomach, and Bobcat Goldthwait as the adrenal gland.  It was a riot to watch, and its themes of self-control and making smart choices (that the brain is ultimately in command), were important ones.

45.  Country Bear Jamboree (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  Like the Tiki birds, I do not remember experiencing this attraction prior to my most recent visit in 2014.  In a lot of ways, this show is a counterpart to the Tropical Serenade– an audio-animatronic-driven show featuring an ensemble cast (in this case, a bunch of down-home bruins from Appalachia.) When this show was conceived, television was awash in shows that in turns commemorated and ridiculed more backwoodsy people.  Think back to the Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mayberry RFD, Green Acres, and Hee-Haw; this show is very much in the same vein.  In short, this attraction was made by sophisticated men in Burbank and consumed initially by Florida panhandlers who may not have realized that the joke was on people like them.  It’s still a funny show that succeeds because it gives the bears as much personality as it can with often just 40 seconds or so of a song in which to work before it moves on to the next vignette.  But that’s just enough to establish tone-deaf Big Al, or coquettish Teddi Berra.

44.  Honey, I Shrunk the Audience (Epcot, 1994-2010):  By the mid-90s, the “futuristic experimentation gone horribly wrong” trope was being overused egregiously (see Body Wars, Alien Encounter, Dinosaur, etc.)  But this was one of its most amusing manifestations.  In 1994, the “Honey, I Shrunk” franchise was still a fairly hot item (Disney’s highest-grossing live-action film, in fact), and this film replaced Captain E-O just when Michael Jackson was becoming more of a liability than a draw.  This began the long and ongoing process of introducing established franchises into the originally sacrosanct Epcot Center.  It pioneered the use of “4-D” technology, harnessing spraying water, a moving theatre, and even sweepers under your chair to simulate mice scurrying about you.  It was a riot, but it should have ended its run about a decade earlier.  By the 21st century, nobody remembered the Rick Moranis films all that fondly, and it seemed like a dated contribution to the park, as its crowds slowly dwindled.  Worse, it began a refurbishment of the Imagination pavilion to match the “Imagination Institute” contrivance used to give Moranis’s character his Inventor of the Year award at the beginning of the film, which ultimately removed much of the charm from this section of the park and contributed to the downfall of Journey Into Imagination.  It was a fun movie, but a harbinger of a lot of trends that harmed Epcot Center in the long run before finally giving up its ghost in 2010 to be replaced by….Captain E-O!  I feel like a bastard for saying this, but Michael Jackson’s death couldn’t have come at a more precipitous time…

43.  Mission: Space (Epcot, 2003-present):  Here is where pretenses to objectivity fail us.  I love Horizons, one of the great fixtures of 80s and 90s Epcot and a convicting, optimistic vision for the future.  So, it is difficult to be fair to the attraction that came to replace it; it always has the air of a usurper to me.  There’s no denying that there is a lot of ambitious technology behind this ride, and that a simulated journey to space is a no-brainer for Epcot Center.  But that’s about all I can say on its behalf!  The computer graphics are a bit weak.  It offers each rider a role on the flight like ‘engineer’ and ‘navigator’, but all it involves is pressing a button, and even if you screw that up, it has no effect on your ride experience.  And the preshow featuring Gary Sinise (great choice, by the way) seems more intent on covering Disney’s ass and avoiding lawsuits rather than setting the tone for the experience.  Maybe the worst offender is this: it is insufficiently ambitious.  By this I mean– the ride is openly a simulation of space; Sinise guides you through “mission training” not an actual space voyage.  Given Epcot’s historic broadness and boldness, this seems kind of…I don’t know…half-hearted.  Ultimately, this ride is just below the halfway mark in our ranking.  And since they plowed down an Epcot classic,  spent an unimaginable sum of money, and weathered some expensive lawsuits, creating an ‘average’ experience from all this bother and all this potential is a marked failure.

42.  American Idol Experience (Hollywood Studios, 2009-2014):  One of the nicest surprises of my 2014 visit to Hollywood Studios was the American Idol Experience.  What made it so intriguing was the audition process.  We went on a quiet day (1o-minute stand-by lines for Star Tours, for example), but my wife got to audition for one of the day’s performances, and was seen immediately by one of the “talent scouts.”  What really impressed me was how the team handled their jobs– they have to listen to dozens of different aspirants every day, and find ways to gently tell the overwhelming majority that they won’t make it to the next level of auditions, let alone the live performance itself.  They were really good and very graceful in a rather difficult and thankless task.  The show itself was great fun, with a panel of judges that usually includes a gregarious black guy (a la Randy) and a jaded Englishman (a la Simon).  The stakes are real- each show’s winner faces off for a showdown at closing time, and the winner gets a ticket to the front of the line at the actual auditions for the show.  I think that the show tends to put too much emphasis on finding a certain kind of voice: belters and divas for the ladies, and Eddie Vedder soundalikes for the gentlemen, but that’s okay.  In my opinion, it was a great return to the old MGM Studios’ form: audience participation in how the magic of movies and television takes place.

41.  Muppet-Vision 3-D:  (Hollywood Studios, 1991-present):  When Jim Henson sold The Muppets to the Disney Corporation just before he died, lots of fans were nervous and unsure about the soundness of this transaction.  This lovely 3-D picture is perhaps the best legacy of this partnership, and it is, interestingly, the lone relic of an ambitious but ultimately aborted Muppet-land area of the park.  Allegedly, a “Great Muppet Movie Ride” would have seen the Muppets lampooning scenes from legendary films- just a few hundred feet away from the real “Great Movie Ride”!  This film has everything you would want from a Muppet show like this: explosions, absurdity, the blurred lines between behind-the-scenes and in-the-spotlight that defined the Muppet Show, and most importantly, heckling from Statler and Waldorf.  It has some lingering flaws of its time; computer imagery was in its infancy so “Waldo the Spirit of 3-D” looks unspeakably dated and his behavior in the film exceeds Jar-Jar levels of obnoxiousness.  And the film pushes Bean Bunny on the audience at a time when Henson Enterprises was aggressively marketing him as ‘the next big Muppet.’  Beyond any of these drawbacks, it was one of the last projects that Jim Henson did before his untimely death; indeed, most of his last few months were spent living it up at the Grand Floridian and supervising the installation.  For that reason alone, Muppet-Vision has a historical significance that complements its proven ability to entertain for what is approaching a solid quarter-century.  In my opinion, it is the clear winner for the best 3-D film in the Disney parks canon.

180.  “The End”– The Doors (1967):  Listening to this track in preparation for my blog post, I was struck by how much it sounds like an evolutionary version of the Jefferson Airplane.  It is dense and lost in a deep psychedelic haze with lazy, strewing guitars, and murky Ray Manzarek organ.  Like a stream, it meanders through some exotic, unfamiliar, and even dangerous territory (including a Oedipal spoken word section that borders on insanity), and you really feel like you are listening to the end of all things.  Small wonder it has been used in film so effectively in the last fifty years.

179.  “Alone Again, Or…”– Love (1967):  Every once in a while, lightning strikes and a band that seems marginal or insignificant produces something timeless.  Love’s Forever Changes is probably the most familiar example of this rare phenomenon, where a band with little else to their name created an album that many regard as one of the very best from the 1960s.  The opening track is, in my opinion, the best, with an finger-picking acoustic backing that anticipates indie, and some colorful flamenco flourishes.

178.  “I Put A Spell On You”– Nina Simone (1965):  This cover moves Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ original from the Halloween graveyard into the lounge, and it works beautifully.  Simone’s staggered delivery turns a song that began life as almost a novelty into a standard for the ages.

177.  “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”– Led Zeppelin (1969):  Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?  If so, Chicago seems smitten with Led Zep.  This song is the transparent inspiration for “25 Or 6 to 4″, but written in much more of a blues medium.

176.  “Iko Iko”– The Dixie Cups (1965):  You probably remember the Dixie Cups for the sweet “Chapel of Love,” but this was their other hit, using whatever percussion they had available– coke cans, ashtrays– to make this traditional New Orleans standard into more of a schoolyard chant usually performed when skipping rope or doing hopscotch.

175.  “Dream Baby”– Roy Orbison (1962):  With little more than an acoustic guitar and what sounds like someone tapping on a suitcase at the start, it slowly builds, with organ and background vocals.  Roy’s strong melodic instincts and operatic approach to rock and roll shine through.

174.  “Here Comes My Baby”– The Tremeloes (1967):  I rediscovered this song at a 1999 trip to Epcot Center, when the band doing British Invasion songs at the United Kingdom pavilion broke this one out.  Even though Decca Records infamously picked the Tremeloes over the Beatles in 1962, “Here Comes My Baby”  belies their reputation as a mere footnote in rock and roll trivia.  This riotous track has a terrific unrehearsed feel to it- and to my delight, I later found out it was written by Cat Stevens!

173.  “I Am A Rock”– Simon & Garfunkel (1965):  Paul Simon continued to push rock and roll into more mature lyrical territory.  While he can sometimes sound like an over-earnest 2nd-year English major (“It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain,”) this song tackles themes of solitude and isolation in a song that seemed hard-wired to repudiate John Dunne.

172.  “She Loves You”– The Beatles (1963):  It might not be the strongest song that The Beatles recorded, but it is the quintessential song from the Beatlemania era, and it thus deserves a spot on this list.  Effortlessly catchy and memorable (how many songs have as simple but effective a hook as “yeah, yeah, yeah”?), it topped the British charts for 9 weeks and almost singlehandedly turned The Beatles from merely an interesting Northern pop group into legends in their home country.

171.  “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”– Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1962):  Smokey was so damn prolific in the early 60s that I’m still surprised today how deep his catalog is.  This track, which was never one of his higher-charting numbers, builds up to a great climax, and the songwriting tics were enough to capture the ear of John Lennon and coax one of The Beatles’ more convincing covers.

170.  “Evil Ways”– Santana (1969):  Carlos was great, but let us never forget that Santana was an ensemble.  From Greg Rollie’s organ lead, and Chepito Areas’ percussion, this is very much a piece that the entire band contributes to in order to succeed.  Latin-tinged numbers in the 1960s always sounded a bit cheap and exploitative.  In contrast, you can hear a truly latin-infused rock being developed here.

169.  “I Say A Little Prayer”– Aretha Franklin (1968):  No offense intended to Dionne Warwick, but Aretha mops up the floor with the original martini-hour version of this Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis track.  Aretha’s performance is pure soul, pure urgency, and the unsung heroines are her robust backup singers who actually, if you listen carefully, do a lot of the heavy lifting in the song’s chorus.

168.  “To Love Somebody”– The Bee Gees (1967):  In our last installment, I commented in my write-up to “Words” how deep this Australian trio’s catalog was in the Sixties, even though we associate them with the 1970s and the excesses of the disco era.  Self-flaggelating, slightly condescending, and earnestly harmonized in the chorus.  The first time I heard it, I couldn’t believe a song this complex by The Bee Gees could have been written this early.

167.  “Spirit in the Sky”– Norman Greenbaum (1969):  Nigh-one-hit-wonder Greenbaum had his finger on the pulse of a major cultural phenomenon, the Jesus Freaks.  The Southern California incarnation of carefree, easygoing, west-coast movement revitalized a Christianity that was, in turns, staid, unresponsive, or overly-politicized throughout much of the decade.  With all the conviction and certainty of a 19th century Baptist hymn, Greenbaum taps into the “personal relationship with Jesus” angle that most people associate with historic Christianity but is in many ways deeply tied to the 1950s and 1960s consumerism.  A great time capsule song; if I had to pick one representative of 1969, I might very well pick this one.

166.  “Georgia On My Mind”– Ray Charles (1960):  It might never top “What’d I Say” as the truly essential Ray Charles track, but Charles takes this Hoagy Carmichael standard and makes it timeless, with any trace of artifice and insincerity removed.  I only wish that it had been released with just Ray and his piano, and none of the overzealous orchestration.

165.  “Hawaii 5-0″– The Ventures (1968):  The Ventures finally made it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 (curiously leap-frogging over the dean of surf rock, Dick Dale.) This is everything a television theme should be- short, memorable, and evocative of its setting.  College pep bands have made sure this track remains immortal.

164.  “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”– The Beach Boys (1966):  This opening track to the epochal Pet Sounds album finds Brian Wilson harnessing a small army of musicians to make this very heavy, intensely arranged near-masterpiece.  For all of its complexity (including a dramatic tempo mid-change about two-thirds of the way through), the song is disarmingly simple.  He and his girl want to sleep together, but they are too young.  I get it.  I grew up in a conservative community in upstate NY.  You’re 14, you want to be with somebody and you just…can’t.  This song captures that loving sense of hopelessness.  It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful track; I’d go on, but I’d only be tempted to rank it higher, and I have to stick to my plans.

163.  “Ferry Cross the Mersey”– Gerry & the Pacemakers (1964):  I always thought Gerry and the Pacemakers were maybe the most underrated of the British Invasion groups that found chart success in America.  This track is surprising for its thoughtfulness and its themes evoking nostalgia and homesickness.  With the right kind of support- a Brian Epstein and a George Martin of their own- I wonder what they could have accomplished.

162.  “Build Me Up Buttercup”– The Foundations (1968):  When I was in 9th grade, I tried to write a screenplay, and being in 9th grade, said screenplay was juvenile, and enamored of my own engrained sense of genius and cleverness.  I wrote a daydream sequence for my main character where he skips off with the girl of his dreams with this song playing as all kinds of absurd and ridiculous Adam-Sandleresque things happen in the background.  Three months after I finished work on the screenplay, There’s Something About Mary was released, which used this song for the exact same purpose.  Eerie.

161.  “Down on the Corner”– Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969):  CCR was never a band that placed an especially high emphasis on storytelling, and their pretensions to hail from the swampland were convincing to many, but utterly fraudulent.  They couldn’t recognize a bayou if an alligator bit them in their pasty Southern Californian asses. Even still, there’s something wonderfully affecting about this track about a down-on-their-luck jug band just trying to play a concert without being harassed.


Some encouraging feedback from a good friend and talented colleague made me want to take up this series again, ranking the Disney World attractions that I’ve experienced in my nine visits to Lake Buena Vista.  (And this includes attractions that are now defunct or replaced.)  As we move to the top of this countdown, we’re passing from the “probably avoid this” to “see it if you can, but don’t get worked up if you miss it.”  So, let’s explore…

60.  Snow White’s Scary Adventures (Magic Kingdom, 1971-2012): A Fantasyland staple for decades, this archetypal dark ride was finally shuttered for the Fantasyland expansion a few years ago.  It puzzled guests to a great extent: the witch would pop up out of nowhere and scare the bejesus out of you, Snow White seemed AWOL, and the dwarves, prior to a mid-90s update, were hardly anywhere to be seen.  An old copy of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World related a story of an extended family’s ride ending in shrieking toddlers and a befuddled Grandpa asking “where the hell was Snow White?”  When writing a paper on the Disney parks for an Economics class in college, I came across an article, which I’ve since lost, which explained the logic behind the bedlam.  It turns out, the rider is supposed to be Snow White herself– you were seeing things through her eyes, you weren’t a film viewer watching the story unfold from afar (a la Peter Pan’s Flight), but experiencing firsthand her paranoia and her sense of having nowhere to turn for help.  This is an interesting psychological concept, to be sure, but perhaps a bit heady for most tourists!

59.  Kali River Rapids (Animal Kingdom, 1999-present): The Animal Kingdom is a great, big park with themed areas that pay tribute to the serengetti and the Himalayas.  By all rights, the obligatory raft ride in this park should be one of the greatest attractions of this genre in the country, with lots of cool animatronics, meticulous attention to detail, and small touches of the sort that elevate Thunder Mountain from a ho-hum roller coaster into a visual feast.  Apparently, there’s a storyline about loggers and deforestation, but it lacks punch and cohesion.  And given the space the park had to work with, the ride could have been much longer.  Worse, there is an extraordinary chance that you will be soaked– like, soaked to the point where you feel uncomfortable going on other rides.  This ride has hampered lots of daily agendas, as guests spend half an hour in front of a bathroom dryer de-soaking themselves, or feel obliged to go back to their hotel for a change of clothes.  If you are spared much direct water contact, it can be a pleasant experience, but this ride would be more impactful if there was less splash, and more drama.

58.  Enchanted Tiki Birds (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1997; 2011-present):  This might surprise you, but I did not visit the Tiki Birds until my ninth and most recent trip to WDW in 2014.  I had always intended to, but between having parents who hated it since the 70s, and hearing shockingly bad reviews of its longtime replacement with Iago and Zazu, it just never materialized.  Here are my long-awaited impressions: it was out of date (four male birds hosting the show while being little more than color-coded ethnic stereotypes?  Jesus Christ, why not just make the Irish tiki bird drunk for the show?).    It wasn’t very entertaining.  It wasn’t very clever or well-written.  But it was relaxing and surprisingly mellow. For all of this, I thought it was a great lesson in the history of themed attractions, as the first show where audio-animatronics carried the weight of the presentation.  There are only a handful of attractions in history that fundamentally changed what a theme park was and could do–and this is one of them.  It hearkened back to the days when tiki bars and champagne music were highly valued forms of entertainment.  The attraction is old and in no way attuned to modern audiences–and I’d be furious with Disney if they ever replaced it (again.)

57.  Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular (Hollywood Studios, 1989-present): Look at every single promotional film Disney made for its Orlando parks in the early 90s.  Re-watch the Muppets Go to Walt Disney World special.  Revisit every single ABC family sitcom special where the cast of Full House/Rosanne/Step By Step/Family Matters/Sabrina heads down to Florida and mayhem ensues.  (Hooray for corporate mergers!) I guarantee you that in every single one of these, the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular is involved in some way.  Usually one of the heroes (Cody from Step by Step, Kermit in the Muppet special) is corralled into replacing Indy.  Disney promoted the hell out of it, and to be fair, there are some cool stunts and some fun audience-participation elements to the show.  It gets marked down, though, because I cannot think of many attractions that lose so much when you visit them for a second time.  Unbelievably, for a live-action show with lots of possibilities for audience-extras to make funny mistakes, there is no reason to see this stunt show more than once.  None at all.

56.  Flights of Wonder (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present):  “Flights of Wonder” is easily replicable, and most respectable zoos and bird parks have something similar on offer, where trained specialists show off the cool tricks that birds can do, while educating guests and purporting a message of environmentalism.  When I visited Animal Kingdom in 2009 on my own, I tried this show out, not expecting much.  I was pleasantly surprised at the show’s accessibility, its audience engagement, and its commitment to treating its birds well.

55.  Captain EO (Epcot, 1986-1996, 2010-present):  It was the first significant 3-D movie that Disney created, and might still be the most expensive film ever made, if judged by cost-per-minute and adjusting for inflation.  Foxfurr over at “Passport to Dreams Old and New” did a great dissection of this 3-D movie: the writing is unclear, the plot is absurd even for fantasy/sci-fi, and there are plenty of mistakes that made it into the film, including background dancers mugging at the camera.  And the film collapses of its own weight, as Michael Jackson, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Capolla were unable to impose a cohesive and compelling vision upon it, even though all three were close to their artistic peaks.  For all these flaws, it is still a glorious hot mess, and maybe one of the most 80s things to have come out of the 80s.  Nothing can prevent a Bad-era Michael Jackson space opera in 3-D from being a great deal of fun.  Nothing.

54.  Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  When I was young, this was my least favorite attraction in Disney World by a country mile.  It took some time and seasoning and maturity to appreciate how lovingly crafted this tree is, with its imaginative and ingenious contrivances, and its attention to detail and impressiveness.   I also appreciate the subtle nods to Johann Wyss’s intent to make the book a form of Christian moral instruction; Disney understandably tries to make their parks welcoming to guests of all religious backgrounds, but in this case, keeping the Regency-era morality and the Robinsons’ sense of faith and providence intact on the plaques that one reads during a walk-through was the right choice to set the appropriate tone. This attraction also inspired the name of my favorite book on the subject of Disney World- Stephen Vjellman’s Vinyl Leaves.  One question it never answers is, “why is a family from landlocked Switzerland so skilled at salvaging jetsam from their ship?”

53.  The Timekeeper (Magic Kingdom, 1994-2006):  The mid-1990s saw Tomorrowland reimagined from every angle, and the somewhat sterile white-toned Googie architecture was transformed into a turn-of-the-century Jules Verne vision with some elements of what would later be called steampunk.  It was a deliberately backwards-looking view of the future, very much like the first third of Horizons.  The Timekeeper replaced America the Beautiful as the 360-degree film, and probably best set the tone for this new Tomorrowland.  It was a fun time-travel adventure, but it stood out for its solid voice cast and its fine soundtrack by Bruce Broughton.  Robin Williams, for once not miscast in a Disney attraction, was a great Timekeeper, and Rhea Pearlman as 9-Eyes, a robot from whose perspective we see the action, was an inspired choice.  So far, it is the only 360-film shown in a Disney park to contain a storyline, rather than the customary footage of scenery.  I’m still not convinced that rapid-fire humor and 360-degree films are a good combination, but it was a respectable experiment.

52.  Mickey’s Philharmagic (Magic Kingdom, 2003-present):  The theatre in the Magic Kingdom has undergone many changes over the years, housing the Mickey Mouse Revue, Epcot reject Magic Journeys, and the Legend of the Lion King show.  It’s current resident is a 3-D film using the power of music to send Donald on a voyage through various Disney films.  There is some creative work between Disney animation and imagineering- historically, two antagonistic forces.  It’s not a bad film at all, and probably the best thing hosted at this site- but it is too manic for me; Donald is the recipient of a lot of cartoon violence, and the viewer doesn’t get a chance to really relish any one film setting before the narrative briskly moves on.  It seems like the film was just designed to make sugared-up 5-year-olds even more ungovernable.  Given Fantasyland’s current make-up, with a new roller coaster, lots of exciting rides, and an insanely crowded and popular restaurant, I can’t help but wish that the film housed here was a bit more chill and relaxing, to contrast and to insulate from the bustle outside.

51.  The Seas with Nemo and Friends (Epcot, 2007-present):  In the early 2000s, Disney completely redesigned the old Living Seas pavilion, which I must confess I rarely visited.  It was a staid, beige-colored ploy to co-opt Sea World visitors, although it was an incredible feat of engineering and a thoughtful essay on how humanity would engage the earth’s last truly unexplored frontier.  The newer incarnation of Epcot’s oceanic pavilion embodies the way Epcot has changed in recent years, particularly by introducing elements from Disney’s film canon into the park (such as the Three Caballeros in Mexico or the Tron-tastic version of Test Track.)  The present version of the ride follows the story of Finding Nemo, using some cool new technologies to project the characters into the tanks alongside real-life ocean creatures.  Truthfully, I think this is the better approach.  Living Seas was one of the few places in Epcot I couldn’t plug into as a kid, and a Nemo-themed introduction to the oceans is just the ticket to invite and welcome the park’s youngest guests into learning more about marine life.

Stay tuned until next time, when we will approach the halfway mark.

andrew johnsonCategory: Failed Ideologue

Term in Office: 17th president, 1865-1869

Party: Union

Home State: Tennessee

We’re almost at the very bottom of our ranking.  For the twelve or so lowest presidents, we have explored a variety of ways that presidents can fail: the unquenchable cynicism of Nixon, the callous unconcern of Coolidge, Buchanan’s blindness to treason, and Van Buren’s contentment in pursuing a deadly and unjust course of action set by his predecessor.  Why, then, is Andrew Johnson at the second-lowest spot?  I answer in this way: Andrew Johnson’s stubbornness and prejudice sabotaged a singular movement in American history: the chance to incorporate freed slaves fully into the fabric of participatory government as a consequence of Union victory.  Instead, Andrew Johnson took every step within his power to limit the expansion of voting rights, property rights, and education.  We could have had a functioning democracy with universal male suffrage a century ahead of schedule, but AJ strangled it in the bassinet.  When Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” and talked about a check for equal justice having been un-cashed for one hundred years, he was referring in part to the hopes that were dashed and the possibilities that were stymied during Johnson’s presidency.

At the crux of all this were Johnson’s views on race, which were especially symptomatic of his background.  Andrew Johnson grew up a fatherless barefoot boy, then a tailor’s apprentice, an escapee from said apprenticeship, and finally a struggling and illiterate journeyman in an unforgiving place- the porous borders between the hill country of North Carolina and Tennessee.  There aren’t too many presidents who truly grew up not knowing where their next meal would come from, but AJ was one of them.  He was thus at the intersection of the South and Appalachia.  And he soaked in his surroundings: the stubbornness, the scrapping for a fight, the hard drinking, the populism, and the stump oratory.  As well as the racial prejudice.  In much of the South, every poor, luckless white man prided himself on his capacity to take part in the political process, and rested in the assurance that no matter what happened, there would always be a rung on the social ladder so far low that he could not descend to it.  This contributed to a fierce belief in white superiority within the South’s white Scots-Irish working class that no wealthy planter could match.

Andrew Johnson was, like much of the eastern Tennessee, committed to the idea of Union.  He was the only senator from a Southern state to remain loyal to the Union after secession, an act whose steadfastness and personal risk secured his place among my 100 greatest senators of U.S. history.  Lincoln soon appointed him military governor of Tennessee once large chunks of the Volunteer State were under Union purview.  With a tough re-election bid on the horizon, Lincoln decided to switch running-mates, and make the election not about the Republican Party, but about keeping the country together.  The GOP was rebranded the Union Party for that election, and to nail that theme down, Lincoln deliberately sought out a pro-Union Democrat, ideally a Southerner, to serve as his running mate.  Johnson fit the bill, and he might have been a very fine symbolic vice-president– until that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre.

Not only was Lincoln dead- but his sketchy but generally reconciliatory policies for bringing the South back into the country died with him.  Without much of a road map, Johnson ran headlong into opposition from Congress- which was trying to reassert itself after an exhausting war that stretched the limits of presidential power.  So began a tortuous tug of war with a Republican-dominated Congress, that harbored large numbers of so-called Radical Republicans after the 1866 midterms.  (If you think about it, that must have been the most badass midterm election in American history, with most of the South under military rule, and the Union victory buoying Republicans- including many veterans- to victory virtually everywhere except the border states.)

Since Lincoln died during a lengthy recess for Congress, Johnson got a head start in carrying out his own Reconstruction plan, which was lenient to an unseemly extreme, offering pardon to virtually everyone but wealthy planters and Confederate ringleaders, and ignoring any attempts to expand suffrage to freedmen.  In this interim, noxious “Black Codes” were passed in former Confederate States, often swindling black labor into peonage debt, with harsh and often strikingly violent penalties.  When acts of terror and violence were used to keep freedmen (and other Republicans) from the polls, Johnson did not lift a finger to come to their aid.  Johnson neglected the Freedman’s Bureau, claiming that blacks did not deserve, in his words, “special privileges.”  (Is this not sounding like the arguments against same-sex marriage just a little bit?)  He vetoed civil rights bills on the grounds that they violated states’ rights (Paging Senator Thurmond?  Paging Senator Goldwater?)  Consistently, he cited a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a desire to reunite the country quickly, and while these were strong elements of Johnson’s political worldview, they were also convenient cloaks for his desire to reinstate the old social order of the South.  Black citizens in the South meant that the old hierarchy was upended.  A successful black man might, in fact, rise higher than an unsuccessful Scots-Irish dirt farmer, and the prospect filled him with a sickening dread.

Radicals in Congress were horrified by Johnson’s actions.  They concluded- correctly, I think- that Lincoln’s landslide victory, and Republican majorities in Congress signaled a mandate for their policies, and as an unelected president, he had best follow their lead.  For two anguishing years, Congress would pass a bill, Johnson would veto it, and Congress would usually- but not always- find the votes to override the veto.  Did you know that there were 10 Supreme Court justices at the end of Lincoln’s term?  When two of them left office, Congress decided to simply let those seats expire, rather than let AJ appoint anyone to the Supreme Court!  This ended, of course, with the Tenure of Office Act, forcing Johnson to keep the disloyal Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in office.  Johnson fired him anyway, inviting an impeachment trial, where the president was saved from the ignominy of leaving office by only one vote.  Perhaps Johnson did not deserve impeachment- the Act was transparently unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court later ruled- but the farcical proceedings were the logical outcome of Johnson’s antagonism, ideological blinders, and his inability to seek out a middle road.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that earlier in the 20th century, Johnson was portrayed as the good guy in this confrontation!  For decades, our understanding of American history was dominated by a small cabal called the Dunning school, named after a Columbia professor and his nursery of graduate students.  They were the first historians to really discuss Reconstruction and the figures behind it.  You know how you watch “The Birth of a Nation” and a part of you dies?  That film was very much inspired by this school of history- and that goes double for the romanticism of “Gone with the Wind.”

Almost without exception, historians from that time- Northern as well as Southern- put forth a pejorative view of Reconstruction that dominated the historiography for decades, and even found its way into my middle school textbook.  If you have a good memory, think back to the negative portrayals of traitorous scalawags and the Northern flimflam artists known as carpetbaggers from your schoolchild days.  Reconstruction, from this point of view, was a disaster of misrule, military tyranny, and petty corruption.  Claude Bowers, influenced by these views, wrote in his 1928 book on Reconstruction: “Never have American public men in responsible positions, directing the destiny of the Nation, been so brutal, hypocritical and corrupt than in the period between 1865 and 1877″ apparently forgetting the years of slave-catchers and gag rules that came before, and the lynchings and Klan terrorism that came afterward.  In many of these accounts, Andrew Johnson assumes a nearly heroic role for trying- with limited success- to stem the excesses of Reconstruction.

Andrew Johnson doesn’t have too many defenders these days (they tend to be Lew Rockwell types), but these brave few would come to his defense readily:  would not, they might say, have Lincoln been lenient with the South?  Did he not view the South as having never seceded, because the Union is indissoluble?  Eric Foner, the single most respected historian of this period, dispels that nonsense: “He lacked Lincoln’s broad-mindedness, he lacked his flexibility, he lacked his compassion for the emancipated slaves, he lacked Lincoln’s connection with the Republicans in Congress and Northern public opinion…the idea long embedded in our history that Andrew Johnson was simply following in Lincoln’s footsteps is ludicrous.”  Had Lincoln lived, he surely would have butted heads with Congress, who wanted to fundamentally punish and remake the South.  And yet it is highly likely that they could have worked together with a bit of horse-trading and cajoling; they had already done so in crafting the 13th Amendment, as well as the Freedman’s Bureau.  Lincoln would very probably have cleverly divided moderate and radical Republicans to get his way.  Johnson, through his dogged determination to see Reconstruction through only his own jaundiced perspective, drove these two rival factions closer together in opposition to himself.

Nothing can condemn Andrew Johnson more than his own words.  Consider the following: “if anything can be proved by known facts, if all reasoning upon evidence is not abandoned, it must be acknowledged that in the progress of nations Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”  Holy shit!  Now, most 19th century presidents said something contrary to the idea of racial egalitarianism at some point in their career; even Lincoln professed a belief in European stock as the superior race in his debates with Stephen Douglas.  The crucial difference is that this drivel appeared in a goddamn State of the Union address setting his agenda for the year!  To a Congress that included, for the first time, men- and very capable men- of African descent!

So, maybe Reconstruction wasn’t carried out in the most ethical way imaginable.  Perhaps there were shady dealings, attempts to corral the black vote into voting for Republicans, and schemes to use GOP supermajorities to enhance and protect Northern industry.  I contend that however dodgy this state of affairs may have been, it was infinitely more preferable to the genteel farce of antebellum Dixie undergirded by violence, racial hierarchy, and chattel slavery.   It boggles my mind how some people can view Reconstruction as corrupt, and the “peculiar institution” as somehow less corrupt.  Worse, for years, the supposed debacle of “uneducated Negro voters” was, in the decades that followed, used as a justification for the poll taxes, absurdist literacy tests (one black applying to vote in the 1950s was told to name the entire cabinet of the 11th president), and outright violence that often accompanied black attempts to exercise the franchise.

General Lee reluctantly conceded in the aftermath of Appomattox that the “negro franchise” was a logical outcome of the South’s defeat.  Even if one accepted Johnson’s belief that the South never seceded because secession is unconstitutional, you can’t deny that they lost a war, and that there ought to be consequences of that loss.  Johnson gave the game away.   After centuries of complicity in slavery by northern industrialists, black rights and Yankee self-interest coincided, like a rare eclipse.  And a tremendous opportunity to further the cause of justice, to bring the reality of America closer to its ideals, was lost.  Imagine an America where a solid unbroken generation of African-American citizenship had been not only legislated but also enforced in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Imagine an America where George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington were in Congress, and Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens was under house arrest, rather than serving in the House of Representatives.   I don’t want to suggest that the millennium would have broken out had Thaddeus Stevens’ Reconstruction policy ruled the day, but the South was so sufficiently damaged and prostrate (thanks, General Sherman!) that it would have accepted much sterner provisions for re-entry into the Union, because there was no other choice.  The winners dictate the terms.  Coffee is for closers.

Not even the accomplishments of his presidency, including “Seward’s Folly,” his purchase of Alaska from the Russians, can mitigate this mismanagement.  Despite the common misperception that the acquisition of Alaska was greeted with ridicule, virtually every active politician of the time accepted the virtues of expansion.  And all but the dimmest bulb would have jumped at the opportunity for so much mineral wealth, available for pennies on the dollar.  Like Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase, you cannot call someone a political genius for accepting such a lopsided bargain.

And for the record, lots of historians agree.  The first two rankings (1948 and 1962) were before the civil rights movement had reached its zenith, and most historians did not place racial reconciliation on a high priority.  Given the influence that the civil rights movement and other social causes had in academia, Andrew Johnson’s ranking in the presidential sweepstakes has plummeted, and with good reason.  You won’t find him outside the bottom 5 very often these days.  Today, he stands as a warning, and as a reminder that all too often, someone harboring strong racial animosities can explain inaction in the face of injustice with the excuse of “just following the Constitution.”

The Reconstruction years needed both a healer and a firm hand, able to reconcile the South back into the nation, but with the understanding that a very different political order must necessarily result from the Union victory.  It needed cleverness and creativity, not rigidity and inflexibility.  Unfortunately, Johnson wanted reunification with alacrity, rather then reunification with justice.  By any standard you want, he was the wrong man for the job.

With the last post, we finally made it past the halfway point.  Lots of great songs were covered in spots #201 thru 400, and things are only going to get better.  Please join me as I unveil the next twenty spots in the Top 400 Songs of the 1960s:

200. “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag”– Country Joe and the Fish (1967):  The live take recorded at Woodstock is an absolute riot to listen to, but the studio version has its merits as well.  Borrowing a leaf from Tom Lehrer in using ragtime to satirize contemporary social issues, the track skewers the military-industrial complex and the poorly thought-out goals for American involvement.  One of the most divisive tracks on this list, it is something every member of the counterculture would have loved, and every member of the Silent Majority would have reviled.

199.  “It’s Your Thing”– The Isley Brothers (1969):  Talk about a reinvention!  After hitting it big with “Twist and Shout” and just plain “Shout!,” the Isleys were, for a brief time, a take-it-to-the-bank favorite for dance music.  By decade’s end, they came back from relative obscurity, and created this song, once against guaranteed to get people moving on the dance floor.  I’m sure James Brown considered demanding some royalties the first time he heard this.

198.  “Matty Groves”– Fairport Convention (1969):  If you haven’t listened to Fairport Convention, do yourself a favor and give them a try.  Maybe start with their most famous album, Liege and Lief.  With rock and roll pedigrees, this group of Englishmen attempted to rediscover and reinvent the music of their home country.  With “Matty Groves” they took a classic tale of cuckoldry and infused it with drama and atmosphere.

197.  “Monday, Monday”– The Mamas and the Papas (1966):  This song is quintessential 1960s, and one of the great efforts from one of the most quintessential 1960s acts.  Even as their easygoing hippie demeanor belied the simmering interpersonal drama, the Mamas and the Papas served up this acoustic, orchestrated track, replete with one of the most famous false endings in pop history.

196.  “Midnight Confessions”– The Grass Roots (1968):  The Grass Roots still constitute one of my favorite guilty pleasures to this day.  With a heavy-handed producer, loads of material from outside songwriters, and outside musicians playing on their records, they were only slightly less fabricated than the Monkees.  But gosh- those songs are some of the best ear candy of the late 60s and early 70s.  “Midnight Confessions” was one of their first big hits, with alternating lead vocals and punchy horns that anticipated Chicago.

195  “Wishin’ and Hopin'”– Dusty Springfield (1964):  Lulu.  Cilla Black.  Petula Clark.  All artists were cut from the same cloth- and yet one of their number, Dusty Springfield, left all of them in the…well…dust, breezing into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and becoming a serious contender for the 100 Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of all time.  Why?  Versatility.  Springfield ambitiously hopped between Memphis-style excursions, girl-group retreads, and pieces like this one, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place from someone like Barbara Lewis.  And most importantly, she never tried to out-Aretha Aretha, possibly the definition of failure for female singers in the 1960s.

194.  “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”– Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1968):  If I could have three music-related wishes, I’d bring back John Lennon from the dead, I’d bring back George Harrison from the dead, and then I would impose a total moratorium against using 1960s pop songs in commercials.  I never, ever, ever should have heard this song for the first time in a mid-90s Burger King commercial selling flame-broiled whoppers.

193.  “Conquistador”– Procol Harum (1967):  You could never accuse Procol Harum of lacking ambition.  Gary Brooker cooked up this track with a complex orchestral track that is expertly woven into conventional rock and roll backing.  Every time you hear of a rock and roll band doing a series of concerts with a philharmonic, Procol Harum more or less invented the concept- along with pretentious lyrics like “your death-mask face”.

192.  “I Can’t Get Next To You”– The Temptations (1969):  We are clearly moving into funky, less-polished Temptations Mark II in this track.  The Temptations’ secret weapon was always the interplay of their voices- impossibly high tenors, resonant deep voices, and some soulful, distinctive parts in between them.  Every Temptation gets a turn at the microphone in this number creating one of their most urgent tracks.  With a little help from the Funk Brothers, they manage to find a sweet spot between soul and the psychedelic.

191.  “Dead Man’s Curve”– Jan and Dean (1964):  For a while, Jan and Dean dominated the nascent surf scene and were its most visible icons in what began as a deeply local movement with nary a national following.  Then the Beach Boys hit, and suddenly Jan and Dean seemed like that old Calecovision, gathering dust in your basement. This was something of a comeback attempt, with a hint of angst and fatalism that is leftover from the “Leader of the Pack” era.  The song also proved sadly prescient; Jan ended up in a car accident near the very curve in the highway that inspired this song, leaving him in a coma for weeks.

190.  “Land of 1,000 Dances”– Wilson Pickett (1966):  Pickett’s exciting R&B stylings made him a standout, and I think he is somewhat overlooked as a grandfather to what became funk music.  I absolutely love what passes for the song’s chorus, just Pickett scatting the syllable “Nah”- followed by an entire chorus of backup singers.  Perhaps the strongest testament to the song is that it receives airplay while many of the dances it commemorates (the Watusi, the Mashed Potato) do not.

189.  “Those Were the Days”– Mary Hopkins (1968):  The Beatles’ ill-advised creation of Apple Records, a cheap tax write-off they came up with after Brian Epstein died, had a number of catastrophic effects.  The bureaucratic headaches and corporate mismanagement created in its wake were far more responsible for the band’s breakup than Yoko Ono ever would be.  But because they were The Beatles, they were able to attract top-notch talent to even a chaotic, poorly run record company.  Maybe the best record from this first crop of Apple recordings was this track, both sweetly sad and eminently joyful, based off of a Russian tavern song.

188. “I’m A Believer”-The Monkees (1966): The Monkees’ most commercially successful song, it is easy to forget how ubiquitous the group was in 1966, decimating their competition, including The Beatles, who offered relatively weak singles like “Day Tripper” and “Paperback Writer” that year.  This track, written by Neil Diamond of all people, is a masterpiece of pop songwriting with zero artistic integrity at a time where it was considered, for the first time in the 20th century, an expectation of popular musicians.  Sure, the Monkees don’t play a single note on it- not even Davy Jones’ tambourine- and sure, it was handpicked for them by their svengali, Don Kirschner.  But I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the sunniest and most memorable tracks to come out of the decade.

187.  “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”– Darlene Love (1964):  Love labored long and hard in the shadows of the “Wall of Sound”.  Phil Specter, a mad experimenter who viewed singers and musicians as a means to his vision, became notorious for issuing records under the Crystals’ name that did not actually feature any known members of this girl-group.  “He’s A Rebel”?  That’s Love singing lead, languishing in obscurity.  Thankfully, every holiday season you can hear Love- under her own name- belting out this track from this Christmas album released by the artists in Specter’s stable.  It’s little more than Love riffing off of “Chriist-maaaaas” backing vocals, but it is no less magnificent to behold.

186.  “In the Court of the Crimson King”– King Crimson (1969):  Depending on how you feel about Procol Harum, this track is the lead-off song from perhaps the first progressive rock album ever made.  Greg Lake- later to feature in Emerson, Lake & Palmer- makes it work, with solid lead vocal work and impressive bass chops.  It sets the parameters for everything music aficionados love and hate about the genre- it is long, ponderous, mythological, features extended solos, betrays zero soul, and is entirely undanceable.

185.  “For Once in My Life”– Stevie Wonder (1968):  Child stars have a propensity to crash and burn.  Stevie Wonder, having achieved his first #1 hit in 1963 as a pre-teen kept getting stronger and better, in spite of all odds.  He had a small armada of hits by this time, and he was only 18.  But this is perhaps his first song that touches greatness, or was capable of becoming a standard.  I mean, Sinatra asked to record this song!  And it worked just as well crooned by Ol’ Blue Eyes as it did with a soulful harmonica solo in the middle when Stevie released the original.

184.  “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”– The Temptations (1966):  Having enjoyed a revival in the 1980s film The Big Chill, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” feels a bit more airy and less constrained and micromanaged than a lot of other Motown hits of this era.  The sense of space is particularly striking during the verses, with the soul equivalent of the monochromatic drone in Indian music.

183.  “Words”– The Bee Gees (1968):  The gold chains and white suits were still almost a full decade away.  Here, The Bee Gees were still young prodigies, writing tuneful songs with some of the best melodic twists of their time, and lush orchestration.

182.  “Love Is All Around”– The Troggs (1967):  What a remarkable turnaround!  The Troggs, a barely-literate garage band responsible for “Wild Thing,” managed to also pull off this love song, one of the very sweetest of the Oldies era.  It is a bit overwrought, with saccharine strings, and awkward syntax like “on my love you can depend,” but it has generated a great many covers over the years (perhaps, most memorably, in a Christmas-themed version in Love, Actually.)

181.  “Darling Be Home Soon”– Lovin’ Spoonful (1966):  The Spoonful, helmed by John Sebastian, were always ahead of the curve in the songwriting stakes.  While “Summer in the City” and “Do You Believe in Magic” are the most well-remembered today, this track- a minor hit from mid-decade- is one of their very best accomplishments.  The narrator, still a teenager, reflects on his growing sense of mortality and vulnerability.


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