20131012134431!Franklin-roosevelt Category: Social Justice Champion

 Term in Office: 32nd president, 1933-1945

 Party: Democratic

 Home State: New York

The social contract had changed.  You wouldn’t know it from the lack of constitutional conventions, or the absence of revolutionary rhetoric, but the tacit agreement that bound the government and the governed had been altered, and there were countless subterranean signs to that effect for anyone who cared to look.  The Great Depression had devastated the country, turning proud workers into supplicants, CEOs into dishwashers, and Ozark farmers into nomads with little more than a vague hope to make it to California.  The massive extent of the wreckage made many Americans rethink their relationship to the state and demanded that its government do something (and a very inchoate something) to fix the economy and bring relief to the destitute masses.  The Depression killed the earlier Jeffersonian consensus that the government that governs least governs best.

The single most important factor of FDR’s presidency is that he recognized this tectonic shift and took large-scale measures to accommodate it.  His solution was called the New Deal.  Think of the New Deal as a three-legged stool of reform, recovery, and relief built to support an ailing economy- so, a collection of short-term help with long-term structural change.  There are too many programs to cover all of them, but the most important include the Glass-Steagall Act (bifurcating commercial banking from investment banking), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FERA relief, the Civilian Conservation Corps (which put 2 million men to work, helped conserve some beautiful parts of our country), the Civil Works Administration, the Rural Electrification Act (if you live in North Dakota and can read this, thank FDR) and the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation.  Not all of these took effect immediately, but their psychological impact in restoring hope is incalculable.  Half a million Americans wrote letters to FDR within weeks of his inaugural, and saw his dynamic First 100 Days as a signal that things were finally moving in the right direction after the hapless Hoover administration.

FDR was also a landmark president because of how he communicated with the wider public.  He took McKinley’s innovations to the next level, and used radio as a tool to not only reach voters, but to persuade, cajole, calm, and reassure them.  He added, in other words, a personal or human dimension to the presidency that stands out baldly when you juxtapose a fireside chat to a stilted Wilson or Hoover address.

The New Deal, and Roosevelt’s presidency more generally, was also marked by experimentation and innovation.  Sometimes it didn’t work, but when it did, the results were staggering.  Roosevelt was the first president to have a female cabinet secretary, Frances Perkins of the Labor Department at a time when women in positions of leadership were suspect.  He attempted sundry programs his Brain Trust came with them, and had the pragmatism to reject what didn’t work.  “I have no intention of making a hit every time I come up to bat,” he once explained.  “What I seek is the highest possible batting average.”  All this shows that creativity, considering options nobody else has tried yet, is an essential ingredient to presidential success.  He was also a canny information monger, often setting aides against one another to see who could deliver crucial news-bites and rumors to him first, and through almost sheer force of personality was able to impose order on an increasingly expanding federal bureaucracy.

In terms of character, FDR had an ingredient that helped him succeed at this high level: empathy.  He might have been just another Hudson aristocrat dabbling in politics as sport, but his crippling battle with polio gave him insight into lack of opportunity and allowed him to better perceive that many Americans, not through lack of work but through bad luck and circumstances out of their control, needed a helping hand.  This trait went double for my favorite component of the FDR presidency: Eleanor.  The First Lady was a crucial help to the best, most compassionate, elements of the FDR administration–always needling him to remember the destitute, or to be more proactive on civil rights.  Although the solutions to the dilemmas of the 30s and 40s were often complex, byzantine, and highly overmanaged, there was always a beating heart behind them and a human concern for others that sets it apart from the “Screw you, you’re on your own” attitude of, say, Coolidge.  But FDR was also creative, mischievous, curious, childlike; the joy of the presidency stayed with him.

He also fixed a few endemic problems in the political process along the way.  For one thing, the Democrats had a self-immolating rule that required that their nominee have 2/3rds of the vote at their convention.  This led to a number of terrible compromise nominees over the years (John W. Davis, James Cox, Alton Parker) and prevented stronger Democratic candidates who had a small, devoted corps of enemies from winning the nomination.  In accepting  renomination in 1936, FDR demanded that the number be reduced to a simple majority as a condition of his acceptance.  He also began the tradition of a candidate personally selecting his running mate, ending the days of back-room wrangling for the vice-presidency.  But not all innovations and fixes were equally wise.  Many people recognize (correctly, I think) that his attempt to pack the Supreme Court was a badly conceived move, and gave those who claimed that FDR was a totalitarian power-grabber all the ammo that they needed.  However, it is important to remember that the number of Supreme Court justices is not set at nine permanently; the constitution allows for Congress to change the number of justices, and it did fluctuate many times during the early 19th century.  It wasn’t an illegal plan, or a sinister plan, but it was a plan that was poorly considered, and if carried out, would have compromised the Supreme Court’s independence.  Still, the Court was packed with minimalists and strict constructionists during FDR’s early years, including recalcitrant justices from the Harding, Wilson, and even Taft years.  They struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, a New York minimum wage law, and other measures, proceeding from the Lochner era philosophies that such measures curtailed freedom of contract.  Fundamentally, the Court did not realize what FDR did: that the living, dynamic, social contract had changed, and it had changed in ways that a strict-constructionist or corporatist worldview could not perceive, could not accommodate, and ignored at its own peril.  Eventually, with a bit of patience, time did what the court-packing plan could not; by FDR’s death, he had appointed eight out of the nine justices and a more progressive jurisprudence prevailed.

All of this led Franklin Roosevelt to succeed as no other president had done.  He won election four times, and each one was a landslide.  In 1936, he won every state in the country except Vermont and Maine, two disproportionately rural areas filled with old-fashioned Yankee Republicans.  And even in 1944, his closest election, he still won states that had  been considered monolithically Republican just a generation earlier like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Utah, and New Hampshire.  He remade American politics with the so-called New Deal Coalition of inner-city workers, poor farmers, Appalachians, Southerners, and even black Americans (the FDR years were the first time when African-Americans began to abandon the Party of Lincoln.)  His impact was so deep and enduring that in 1967, Time columnist Hugh Sidney wrote, “You could stand on this Tuesday afternoon…and look out over the faces of the East Room of the White House and suddenly understand that Franklin Roosevelt still owned Washington.  His ideas prevailed.  His men endured.  The government that functioned now was his creation perhaps more than any other single man.”

I categorized Franklin Roosevelt a “Champion of Justice” and in some ways that is true.  For generations afterward, Appalachian hill folk and trade unionists looked to him as a hero and many even kept a portrait of the man in a prominent place in their house.  He was also perhaps the first president who actively worked in partnership with organized labor, and did not see trade unionists as quasi-socialists out to turn America toward Bolshevism.  With his help, more Americans enjoyed weekends, holidays, safer working conditions, and the ability to bargain collectively than ever before.   In other ways, however, FDR fell short of this heroism, particularly with respect to America’s most vulnerable citizens.  Black Americans, especially, benefitted from New Deal reforms less fully; traditionally black jobs were kept out of the Social Security Program, blacks generally weren’t hired as part of the CCC or CWA, and of course, the odious practice of redlining kept the African-American community from enjoying the blessings of middle-class home ownership.  With Southern Democrats in charge of nearly all the important committees, FDR was at their mercy to pass his legislation through.  Of course, more egregious than this–something most people would consider to be a serious human rights violation–was the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.  Every semester that I teach in Singapore, I assign a chapter from George Takei’s autobiography where he discusses his earliest memories in an Arkansas camp for Japanese-Americans, and the sense of guilt and shame (as well as the loss of property and dignity) that came from the experience.  While this wasn’t a concentration camp, and efforts were made to make this experience bearable, it was without question a bad move, and for me, it single-handedly killed any chance for FDR to make it to the top of my rankings.  Whatever else he may have done to improve the spirit and health of the nation, that was an unforgivable act of race prejudice and an abrogation of personal rights.

Looking at the whole picture, think of the various pressures on republics and democracies during the tumultuous 1930s across the world, many of which thrived on the uncertainty created by the Depression.  In those kinds of environments, fascism, viable communist parties, the genial antisemitism of Father Coughlin, and the personality cult surrounding Huey Long all found sympathetic listeners.   Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Oswald…all of these movements responded to the crises of the 1930s by threatening to tear down capitalism, or democracy, or decorum.  Under Franklin Roosevelt, capitalism and democracy survived, and even thrived, by tweaking its excesses, sharing its blessings more equitably, and fostering a robust and gainfully-employed middle-class out of the ashes of Depression.  If an odd conservative managed to find his way to my blog, and believes that Franklin Roosevelt was capitalism’s greatest enemy in American history,  I submit to the contrary that he saved it from itself.

Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was long, complex, and very difficult to evaluate.  No president who served for that long and through not one, but two major paradigm-shifting moments–Depression and War–could hold office without making not just mistakes, but serious mistakes along the way.  But what is success on a presidential level?  I take a humanitarian approach: the best presidents govern well and wisely, but ultimately work to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, give hope to those in despair.  Ultimately, I’m a social democrat with a strong footing in the prophetic strand of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  And since I’m the one making the rankings, I’ll conclude: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president–full stop.


Hi everybody.  Thank you for bearing with me during a period of low output on this blog.  I realize that I have not been posting often, but for a good reason: my book on George McGovern and Progressive Christianity is just about done, and I am getting ready to send it to the University of Massachusetts Press within a week’s time.

Once that happens, I’ll need to start working more on preparing the coming year’s classes that I will teach in Singapore.  However, I am excited to wrap up two longstanding projects on the blog: my presidential ranking (only two posts left) and my countdown of the greatest rides in Walt Disney World (similarly only two posts left).  I also expect to post my final predictions for the next Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class, and weigh in on the state of the 2016 elections, perhaps updating my lists of prospective running mates.

As always, thank you for spending some time at the monastery.

It is hard to believe that we have made it this far, but we’ve arrived at the top 20, or to put it differently, the top 25% of attractions in Walt Disney World, the very cream of the crop.  These are all can’t-miss (or “you should’ve seen it when it was there”) mainstays that offer some of the very best experiences in Walt Disney World.

20.  Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Magic Kingdom, 1980-present):  Under most circumstances, a train-themed roller coaster ride is not terribly original.  Most parks have a variation on this classic archetype.  As is customary, though, Disney takes that archetype, tinkers with it, and turns it into something amazing.  The ride itself is mild and only thrilling in the least terrifying (or most joyful) of ways.  Instead, one focuses on the ride’s momentum, and its clever detail in recreating a frontier mining town in very real danger of going underwater.  It is what I wish more roller coasters were like: fewer inversions and less adrenaline, but a cohesive experience that one cherishes.  Big Thunder was the first true roller coaster I ever experienced (my 1990 trip when I was 6) and I couldn’t get enough of it.  The line was a solid 40 minutes, but my brother and I kept requesting that we go on it over and over.  It was night, and the whole experience was one of my favorite Disney memories.

19.  Kilimanjaro Safari (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present):  While It’s Tough to be a Bug and its Tree of Life theatre might be the Animal Kingdom’s visual focal point, nobody has seriously doubted that Kilimanjaro Safari was its signature attraction on opening day.  The result is a breathtaking facsimile of an African safari, astonishing really, given that Florida is in an altogether different climactic zone.  I’ve experienced the ride’s tropical Southeast Asian equivalent, the Singapore Zoo’s Night Safari, and Disney’s interpretation of the experience is just as good, if not better.  Using clever design conceits (such as air-conditioned rocks to lure antisocial animals into the spotlight), human narration by certified experts (see #14), one of the park’s signature immersive queues, and as blogger Safari Mike aptly puts it, the ride is “repeatable”.  In fact, it is probably the most repeatable in the Disney canon.  Animals being what they are, you’ll never get the same experience twice.   A Disney theme park is all about believably creating the right kind of experience.  It’s not enough to be a pleasant ride through Tomorrowland, it has to be a functional transportation system of the future.  It’s not enough to be a boat ride, it has to be a Jungle Cruise.  It’s not enough to be a roller coaster with Aerosmith music, it has to be a stretch limo careening through downtown L.A. Our visit to the fictive Harambe Wildlife Refuge nails that element down cold.  When I exit and go back to the Animal Kingdom, my system actually takes some time to readjust; it feels like it has been days since I was last in the park although I never left.

18.  Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1998):  By technological standards, this was one low-rent attraction. Its ride system was standard carnival fare, and it was based on a largely forgettable 40s Disney film that most kids have never seen.  Even the characters in the ride were inanimate cardboard cutouts, as if Disney was too cheap to build animatronics.  For all of this, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was a counterintuitive success and an essay in low-tech theme park trickery.  It was all in the misdirection.  As your vehicle careened across the different rooms, you had no idea if you were going to crash through a wall or pivot in a different angle.  The ending of this ride, though, was truly insane: a descent into hell, where the redoubtable Mr. Toad would be punished for all eternity for…his careless driving, I guess?  The ride had many advocates over the years, myself included, and even inspired a fervid but ultimately unsuccessful internet campaign to save Mr. Toad.  I will always remember riding this one with my dad, who was an expert at scaring the bejesus out of me.  This ride gave him plenty of opportunities.

17.  Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom, 2006-present):  Behold, evolutionary Big Thunder.  Everest takes the very best qualities of Frontierland’s railway coaster and goes even further with them.  As crazy as it may seem, Expedition Everest ranks this high partly because it has the best queue in Disney World, bar none.  The winding turnstiles take one back to the days of Edmund Hillary, and show how history and rumor and legend all interplay with one another; it is impossible to tell what is a genuine Himalayan artifact and what is simply Imagineering messing with us.  And of course, the ride itself is a hoot.  It is more intense than Big Thunder (including a scary backwards section) but retains most of its family friendly qualities.  (I say “most” because there is still a considerable difference between the two.  My mom, for example, could handle Big Thunder if necessary but probably couldn’t sit comfortably through Everest.)  A rare unqualified triumph for 21st century Imagineering, I can even forgive the perennially dysfunctional yeti animatronic.  In some ways, it’s scarier to just see the shadow.

16.  Pirates of the Caribbean (Magic Kingdom, 1973-present):  Any hardcore Disney bloggers are going to be pissed at me for ranking POTC this low.  The ride is sacrosanct among Disney aficionados, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute their frequent claim that Pirates revolutionized theme park entertainment into something more engaging, imaginative, and immersive.  Rather than thrills or Fantasyland visits with familiar characters, Pirates offered a new environment, in its own, created, historical-mythical world.  You were watching the pirates, but you were also, in a way, one of them. Of course, POTC wrote the book on detail in a theme park attraction.  No expense was spared to create lifelike visages, and comical vignettes that show a bowdlerized view of Gulf Coast pillage.  Well…speaking of bowdlerized…I am probably in the minority, but I also think Disney made the right choice in changing the tone of this ride in the 90s from rapine to gluttony.  Buccaneers who once chased buxom lasses now pursued chicken legs.  The original ride’s humorous, light-hearted take on sexual trafficking and nonconsensual coitus wasn’t intended to be mean-spirited by the designers but was a thoughtless design choice that made one more uneasy the more one thought about it; rape, or even the hint of rape, isn’t entertaining.  With these changes, Pirates is just right: it is fun, fascinating, and imposing all at once.

15.  Finding Nemo: the Musical (Animal Kingdom, 2007-present):  Sitting at #15, this attraction is both the most highly rated in the Animal Kingdom on this countdown, as well as the highest-ranking live action show.  Some time a decade ago, Disney looked at its recent successes in the theatre, considered what made the Pixar films tick, thought long and hard how the two might translate to the theme parks, and carried it out.  The songs might not be strong, but are good, functional narrative pieces.  Everything else, though, excels beyond any theme park stage show I have ever seen.  The costumes show an astonishing creativity, from a bicycle-riding Mister Ray to a staggering Crush that requires multiple costumed stagehands to operate.  And the actors have to pull off amazing feats of multi-tasking, often acting, singing, dancing, and manipulating puppets all at once.  Ask any Avenue Q cast member; it’s not easy.  I am not a theatre geek (although I did play Mr. Darling in Peter Pan back in  high school)- but I know enough to recognize talent.  And the cast for this show is clearly a cut above most other Disney productions, which have–at best–cruise line cabaret show caliber talent.  When you add drastic set changes, unwieldy and oversized props, and the need to have competent understudies with a very specific set of skills, and the unsophisticated artistic palette of most Disney guests, the fact that Disney pulled it all off is nothing less than a miracle of modern theatre.  Finding Nemo: the Musical might be the most underrated attraction on my list, often playing to a half-crowded amphitheater incongruously located in Dinoland, USA.

14.  Listen To/Living With the Land (Epcot, 1982-present):  Whichever version you prefer, this slow-moving, highly educational boat ride has always been the most quintessential Epcot attraction.  It shows effectively where humanity has been, where it might be going, and why its topic matters.  Best of all, it is a practical enterprise: the plants and fish you see on the tour will be used throughout theme park restaurants, and the entire pavilion is a touchstone of contact between experts and the wider public.  While much of Epcot is (or was) openly humanist, this dwells more on the complex relationship between humanity and its environment, even beginning with a deep, uncontrollable thunderstorm that hints at our ultimate subordination to the natural world, no matter what new technologies we create.  It needs an update, like much of Epcot.  Hydroponics are cool, but are sooooo 1992, and a better discussion on organic farming, sustainable agriculture, and how changes in technology might alleviate hunger across the world (paging my boy, McGovern), could add some vibrant new dimensions.  In my opinion, Living with the Land was dealt a severe handicap several years ago when its tour guides were sacked in favor of canned narration.  Bad move, Disney!  The guides gave warmth and a human touch to the experience; the last thing you want on a ride about something as dynamic as nature is a sterile and automated feel.  It is, along with Journey into Imagination and Spaceship Earth, one of only three attractions that I have visited each of my nine visits to Disney World in one or other of its incarnations.

13.  It’s A Small World (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  It’s A Small World has become something of a joke over the years.  Its relentlessly cheery theme song has been equated to a brain-eating amoeba, the Unofficial Guide has suggested handing out softballs to guests as they board, even Disney’s own “The Lion King” takes a shot at it.  I couldn’t disagree more with the ridicule that has come its way.  Consider for a moment the context in which it was made.  In 1964, Walt Disney, in some ways the ultimate Cold Warrior, agreed to do a slow-moving boat ride that asserted a common humanity at a time when much of the world was engaged in war, insurrection, freedom struggles, or anti-colonial efforts.  There is a boldness and an urgency to its message that belies its sweetness.  Many of those efforts remain intact in the Orlando version.  While its knowledge of the various cultures portrayed isn’t very deep, and occasionally devolves into stereotype and exoticizing, there is nothing cruel or mean-spirited about it.  The UK gets just as much time, attention, care and thought as Zulu Africa.  For all of the disdain thrown in Small World’s direction, it is maybe the most visually engaging and uplifting ride in Disney’s stable.

12.  Hall of Presidents (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  And now we go from something very universal to something peculiarly American.  In the end, any ranking of the rides will have to come to personal preference, so I need to make some confessions.  I loved the presidents when I was a kid.  In many ways, I still do; I’m even ranking them on this blog.  With a bit of encouragement from my grandparents, I memorized the presidents when I was five, and would sometimes whisper the names during the roll call at the end of Hall of Presidents.  One element that always stuck with me is the cast member’s instructions to silence our phone and refrain from photography to preserve “the dignity of this presentation.”  I always appreciated how an attraction like this could realistically demand, and receive, audience respect.  It’s rare indeed that recent presidents with a fair share of enemies (Nixon, Bush 43, and Obama being three of them) get booed or heckled when their name is announced.  (I have sometimes gone in intending to cheer for obscure old Millard Fillmore just to mess with people, and something in me pulls back every time.)  The show isn’t perfect, of course.  Even with Eric Foner’s expert advisement, there are some weird narrative choices, including genocide mastermind-in-chief Andrew Jackson being praised as being the first “president of the people.”  Troubling indeed; couldn’t they have focused on Theodore Roosevelt reinvigorating the presidency, or JFK’s inspirational New Frontier?  Even Reagan would have been a better emphasis.  Still, if you love history, there is nothing quite like seeing the entire pantheon of chief executives all huddled together in period-specific garb.

11.  Star Tours: The Adventure Continues (2011-present):  If Hollywood Studios is supposed to be a love letter to cinema, this ride is a thrilling encapsulation of that sentiment.  The original Star Tours was great; who didn’t want to relive the trench battle in the Death Star?  It was an iconic moment, and a fun ride.  On its own, it would have been in my top 20 handily.  But the recent refurbishment pushes this old favorite into new territory.  Its upgrades include a new 3-D presentation and more importantly, an element of unpredictability.  Technology has evolved in such a way that you can get different segments on different experiences, and your simulator and the animatronics inside will adjust accordingly.  You might end up on Kashyyk (the Wookie homeworld), or you might end up in a firefight with Boba Fett.  It also made the ride much more referential of the films.  Whereas before, you had a new character, rookie pilot Rex,  with only cameos from C-3PO and R2-D2.  Now, you might run into Leia or Yoda or Vader, depending on which version of the ride your simulator runs with.  It reminds us all why Star Wars is such an enduring franchise; I look forward to seeing how and when Hollywood Studios expands its Star Wars offerings into an entire section of the park.

And there we are!  Tune in next time when we cover rides #10 thru #6 on the countdown.

We inch closer on our countdown of the greatest attractions in America’s vacation kingdom, Walt Disney World.  Our group of ten this time around includes some more controversial choices and guilty pleasures.  As always, I implore my gentle readers to remember that while I am ranking these rides partly on merits, innovation, and success on their own terms, there is a highly nostalgic and therefore incorrigible subjective element to these proceedings.  If you would like to see the earlier entrees, just hit the #ranktherides hashtag at the end of this post.  So, step onto the moving platform (it is moving at the same speed as your vehicle), and let us continue:

30.  Maelstrom (Epcot, 1988-2014):  When you are a little kid, it is so very difficult to appreciate the value of the World Showcase, which involves meandering, lingering, browsing, chatting with cast members, dawdling over coffee, and above all else, patience.  No; when you’re a little kid you want to go on rides!  All the rides!  Maelstrom scratched that itch for a lot of us as one of only two rides in the World Showcase, and a sojourn in those viking boats was always welcome after an agonizing half hour of one’s parents fawning over porcelain in the China pavilion.  It was only five minutes long, but what five minutes those were: fantastic narration from the Norse god Odin, a foray into Viking history, an encounter with trolls, a trip down a waterfall backwards, and passage through stormy seas before finding safe harbor.  Say what you want, but I always got off that ride wanting to learn more about Norway or pay it a visit someday.  I never followed up on these ambitions, and remain as ignorant about Norway as the next American, but it’s the thought that counts, right?  Budget cuts during development kept the ride from having as magnificent a scope as it was intended, including a much more tempestuous storm at sea worthy of the name Maelstrom.  And trouble with its sponsors kept the ride from being more than superficially refurbished in its quarter-century of life.  This includes the almost hilariously dated movie Disney all but forced you to endure at the end of the ride, which presented some redoubtable Scandinavians in mullets and 80s fashions well into the twentieth-century.  Maelstrom was finally shuttered in late 2014 to make room for the Frozen-ization of the Norway pavilion (shudder), and Disney fans gave it a lovely send-off, with two-hour long lines on its final day of operation.

29.  Carousel of Progress (Magic Kingdom, 1975-present):  In November, 1996, the day after Bill Clinton won re-election, my family began our first of a lavish five full days in the parks, staying at the Polynesian.  It felt like we were, like Pangloss, living in the best of all possible worlds.  We started at the Magic Kingdom, and made a beeline for Space Mountain.  The wait was half an hour; long for the beginning of the day.  But we waited, and we were finally in our rockets waiting for blastoff….when the ride unceremoniously shut down.  We waited for 10 minutes.  Nothing.  My mom was convinced that we would all die on faulty vehicles, though, so she made us disembark and leave the queue.  (As a historical footnote, nobody died on Space Mountain that day.)  The carousel had recently reopened as part of the new Tomorrowland, with a restoration of its original 1964 format, and a loving introduction that explained why this attraction was important to Walt.  The ride owns its age and much of its chauvinism comes not from the early 1900s when it takes place, but from the 1960s when it was written.  The narrator’s wife is marginalized, domesticated, and overworked, and the children are only seen and heard for short vignettes until the final scene.  Perhaps unintentionally, the carousel tells us as much about changing social conventions as it does about new technology.  Still, it is a great concept, and a useful piece of history through a decidedly corporatist and self-promoting lens.  Like #28, this attraction could use an update to its fourth quarter so that its age does not show as baldly.  The scene set in the “near future” is now laughably dated with 3-D video games and voice-response ovens.  It might need an update, but I’ll always remember it as the first ride on my favorite trip to Disney World.

28.  The Great Movie Ride (Hollywood Studios, 1989-present):  It was the original headliner when Disney-MGM Studios opened its doors, and it was a great way to encapsulate what the park was about.  It was a celebration of cinema (at least the films they could obtain the rights to) but incorporated human guides into the narrative in new ways, from shootouts to reenacting Indiana Jones films.  My reaction riding this for the first time as a 6-year-old was to be scared when a gun-toting gangster took control of our ride vehicle.  But that is why the ride was so great– you could plausibly believe that gangsters would commandeer your ride, right? Immersive and engaging, it reminds us of why we love the movies, with lots of great touches.  (I love the marquee loading area for the Great Movie Ride, for example.)  It punts toward the end (essentially a clip show), but it is still an appropriately gaudy, dramatic, and historical journey, with lots of qualities from the best Disney dark ride traditions.  It looks like this ride is going to be getting an update, partly due to a new alliance with Turner Classic Movies.  And it is about time, too: the most recent film with its own scene is 1979’s Alien.

27.  Turtle Talk with Crush (Epcot, 2004-present):  Very rarely have I been so impressed with a recent Disney attraction as I have been with Turtle Talk.  It was the crowning jewel of the Nemo-ization of The Living Seas and harnessed some great new technologies that allowed guests to meaningfully interact with a cartoon reptile.  The use of digital puppetry (with an assist from some talented voice actors) allows Crush to answer questions, identify individual guests, and use only a loose script to get through, with plenty of opportunities for improvisation and humor.  (Crush often goes over the heads of the little ones sitting in the front with some of his jokes.)  Disney has really been pushing interactivity (rather than immersion) in their parks in recent years.  It has been a mixed success for the most part, but this has been its most unqualified triumph.

26.  Mad Tea Party (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  This very high ranking might seem a bit odd, given how lowly I rated other Fantasyland cycle-rides like the Carousel and Dumbo earlier in this project.  While similarly simple in its construction and design, I can say this: I haven’t had a Disney World trip where morale wasn’t improved by a turn on the tea cups.  It is the perfect mix of factors you can’t control (the size of the cup, the duration of the ride) with the one factor you can: how fast it spins.  Suddenly, the tea cup passengers are divided between those who want to spin fast and those who aren’t so sure.   Invariably, the spinners win any intercup debate, centrifuge takes hold, and the ride becomes undiluted mayhem replete with manic laughter.  The weird thing is that you feel this bond between the other people in your tea cup, like you’ve made it through the whirlwind together.  Tiredness and weariness fade, and you’ve got an adrenaline-fueled second wind to continue your jaunt throughout the Magic Kingdom.  It may not be the most sophisticated ride in the Disney stable, but it has become an indispensable component of any trip to the Orlando parks.

25.  El Rio del Tiempo (Epcot, 1982-2007):  Like the Mad Tea Party, this is one of the guilty pleasures that is ranked significantly higher than an objective take would have it.  And like Maelstrom, this is another ride that went to ruin through the introduction of already-established Disney characters to allegedly broaden its appeal.  The situation of the ride matters: the best possible El Rio del Tiempo scenario is a jaunt after a margarita-soaked lunch at the San Angel Inn, within easy staggering distance of the boat ride.  Once on board, it follows like the love child of the old Tomorrowland ride “If You Had Wings,” and “It’s A Small World,” using short, evocative scenes and rear projection alongside the repetitive theme song and animatronic dolls.  A lot of people dismiss this ride as cheap and derivative, and in some ways they may be right, but a lot of thought actually seems to have gone into it.  They took the time to research and recreate Aztec dance, Mexican art, history, and dress, and it crucially doesn’t over-narrate (nobody says, “now, let us take you to the cliffs of Acapulco!”) and lets the rider’s tequila-addled imagination do the work.  Parts of the ride were borderline-offensive (Mexican hawkers following you through the ride as they sale their wares), but it was a fun visit to a Mexico that probably only exists in the American mind.  I am not opposed to all updates to classic 80s Epcot, but the introduction of the Three Caballeros and the brain-dead storyline involving Donald and the flying serape has made this all but unrideable.

24.  The American Adventure (Epcot, 1982-present):  Oh, dear.  You have a guy with a Ph.D. in history–and even worse, specializes in 1970s U.S. history–commenting on the most substantive statement the Disney parks have made on American history.  Here’s what I’ll say: nobody pays almost $100 for entry to a theme park in order to hear a Howard Zinn-style deconstruction of the American narrative.  I get that.  It’s okay.  This experience has some of the most ambitious animatronic stagecraft ever attempted, with a massive complex that moves various scenes back and forth to the center of the stage.  It works best when it works subtly; I think the best scene in the show involves a group of poor folks at a general store listening to the radio during the Great Depression.  The actors who perform (and the engineers who programmed) narrators Ben Franklin and Mark Twain also deserve kudos for giving them a fluidity and vibrancy that is remarkable by 1982 standards.  The show works less well when it is overwhelmed in meaningless patriotic delirium.  The theme song, “Golden Dream” is so overblown, so full of itself, and so overdramatic (“great bird…with your golden wings…sail on freedom’s wings…’cross the sky”) as to risk ending the show on an unintentionally humorous note.  If you view it as an act of collective mythology–what we all want American to be, the way we wish it were–then the show is a delight.  If you view it as actual history, and walk out talking about “how accurate” it was, for God’s sake, stop reading Ken Ham, turn off Sean Hannity, and go take a history class at your local community college immediately.

23.  WEDWAY Peoplemover/Tomorrowland Transit Authority (Magic Kingdom, 1975-present): Every time I have visited the Magic Kingdom (8 out of my 9 trips), I’ve been on this ride.  I don’t think I can say that of any other Magic Kingdom attraction.  Originally something of a legitimate concept for public transportation, and a feature that has been used in airports since, it is now something of a shady, pleasant diversion, a tour of Tomorrowland with some great vantage points along the way.  In a way, I am struck by how similar this is, in its way, to what Jungle Cruise is to Adventureland, and what the Liberty Square Riverboat is to Frontierland/Liberty Square.  It is slow, it is scenic.  It relies on narration for its fullest effect.  And it is designed to make its section of the park more of a self-contained microcosm than simply an area decorated with a common theme boasting a lot of cool rides.  TTA makes Tomorrowland feel more like a community; this was a bit more present when it was first commissioned as a redone WEDWAY Peoplemover in the mid-90s with the New Tomorrowland, but it still holds up today.

22.  Jungle Cruise (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  The Jungle Cruise is quintessential Disney: creating an immersive environment far removed from the mundane elements of ordinary life through creative staging, gentle humor, and imagination.  Ranking this ride is particularly problematic because your experience is going to be heavily dependent on how good your guide is: I’ve had ones with expert comic timing and great guest interaction skills, and I’ve had nervous, perilously unfunny guides, who stuck to the canned script Disney gave them.  Coming at this, once again, as a historian, it isn’t without its problematic aspects.  Most persistent is the bugbear of orientalism: the boat ride combines all kinds of exotic locations across the world into one, undifferentiated, infantilized, exotic other.  It doesn’t even bothering to change the landscape much along the way, as the narrator blithely informs you that you are on the Irrawaddy or the Amazon.  Weirdly, becoming dated and technologically obsolete has worked in Jungle Cruise’s corny favor.  It is not so much a trip to darkest Africa or the perilous Mekong, but a trip back in time to the 1950s, when the animatronics were clunky, the scripts relied on bad puns, and you could just make fun of (or evoke danger from) non-western cultures because Orange County and all that.

21.  Test Track (Epcot, 1999-present):  The original Test Track disappointed me just a bit, you see.  It all seemed…too industrial.  Too unfeeling.  Too corporate.  Too formulaic and too safe.  Essentially, you got on a test vehicle, it performed some routine tests (like with or without antilock breaks), took you through some different climate areas, and finally those 20 blissful seconds of speeding outside of the pavilion at 65 miles per hour feeling like a total badass.  It was a tough slog and a headache-inducing line for those 20 seconds.  I think the update, replete with a Tron-style makeover, has instilled a sense of wonder and a sense of participation that was missing before.  Now, you can design your own concept car, and see how it works on the track.  (It has no bearing on your actual ride experience, whether your car is a speedy sports car or a crunchy energy-saving statement of one’s progressivism, but who cares?)  Finally, Test Track fulfilled its destiny, and helps us imagine a great and participatory future.  Now, if only the rest of Epcot in 2015 could catch up.

As a devoted hobbyist, the lead up to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees’ announcement is my favorite time of year.  I fully participated in that season for the first time last year, and enjoyed reading predictions from all over the internet, but especially Future Rock Legends, Tom Lane’s Music Blog, and the Rock Hall Monitors, all of whom post their own lists.  Here’s the first draft of my thoughts.  I’ll probably post my final predictions in August, but I can’t imagine they will deviate too much from this list.

Here’s the situation: the Rock Hall is quickly reaching demographic Armageddon.  This is the last year for a while that doesn’t have a no-doubt-about-it, no-brainer first-year inductee.  In fact, I don’t have any first-year eligible acts.  Next year, Pearl Jam becomes eligible, a band that I can almost guarantee will not only be nominated but also inducted.  (2pac and PJ Harvey also become available that year, but their nominations are less certain.)  The year after, you have a veritable explosion of important acts who pass the “25 years since your first record” threshold, including Beck, Radiohead, and Rage Against the Machine, any or all of whom could be nominated. And there’s still a backlog of acts that became eligible the last couple years, but got overshadowed by Green Day and Nirvana: Soundgarden, Pavement, Melissa Etheridge, Queen Latifah, and De La Soul fit this bill, among others.  This means that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame really needs to get its act together and stop screwing around.  If there are pet projects they want to induct, this is the year to do it, because the next few years are going to be dominated by acts that first rose to prominence in the 90s.  For this reason, I project 9 acts to be returning nominees, while only 6 will have been chosen for the first time.

Another trend that appears to be surfacing is an odd year/even year gap.  The ballots for the last two odd-numbered years (Classes of 2013, 2015) were strikingly similar, with a heavier R&B flavor and berths for The Spinners, The Marvelettes, and the decidedly un-R&B Kraftwerk and Joan Jett.  I can’t help but wonder if the 2016 ballot will more strongly resemble the very excellent ballot for the class of 2014, with a sturdier focus on classic rock.

1.  Nine Inch Nails:  NIN made it on the ballot during their first year of eligibility.  Lots of people thought they would get in, and they even placed second in the Rock Hall’s online fan ballot.  And yet, they didn’t make it; interestingly, out of the five winners on the fan ballot, they were the only ones who fell short among the actual voting committee.  It is likely that they will make a return appearance.

2.  Deep Purple: Maybe the single most troubling element of last year’s ballot was the complete absence of 70s Classic Rock acts.  It gave all of the Rock Hall’s manifold critics ever more opportunity to rain down complaints that the Hall was privileging “critic’s pets” over “the people’s favorites” even though most of the best artists in this genre were inducted years ago.  Still, we’ve arrived at a point where Deep Purple needs to get into Cleveland pronto.  The “Not in the Hall of Fame” site lists them as the single biggest Rock Hall snub, and there is an immense backlog of hard rock acts like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest that probably won’t have a realistic shot until Deep Purple is in.  If they are on the ballot, expect plenty of drama and acrimony over which members will show up and which members will be inducted, repeating the most unseemly elements of KISS from two years ago.

3.  Yes: So, my theory last year that they had actually gotten voted in for the Class of 2014 but could not attend because of touring commitments was probably spectacularly wrong. But that doesn’t make Yes any less deserving.  The sad diagnosis of bassist (and sole remaining original member) Chris Squire with leukemia may only add to the urgency of including Yes in a Rock Hall with most of the big prog rock acts still missing.

4.  The Meters:  This funky New Orleans outfit is unknown to much of the public, but their respect in the music industry is resolute and enduring.  They have appeared on the ballot four times before, including twice in the last three years.  Clearly, some influential folks are pulling strings for the Neville brothers and their cohorts.  Out of all the picks, this is the one I’m most iffy about- this spot could just as easily have gone to War or the Spinners.  But R&B and/or funk will be represented.  You can count on it.

5.  Sonic Youth: The Rock Hall has really been struggling with an amorphous category that one might call post-punk or proto-alternative acts.  Someone from that world shows up on just about every ballot, but ends up falling short.  This year, it was The Smiths.  The year before The Replacements, and a couple years earlier The Cure.  My own opinion is that The Cure are best qualified to take this spot, but my guess is that the Nom Com will finally settle on Sonic Youth.  Sonic Youth was only slightly less significant, and was the hip 15-year-old babysitter to a lot of alternative acts when they were little kids, if that metaphor makes sense.  The Hall will be under (well-warranted) pressure to induct more women, and Kim Gordon’s presence will parry this criticism.  Gordon’s recent book, Girl In A Band, will also generate some chatter that will help them.

6.  Warren Zevon: Come on now, we know this routine.  There’s a singer-songwriter every year, and on his or her merits, it seems like their case for induction is shaky.  But they always make it in the end somehow.  (I’m sure you’ve met the last several models: Bill Withers, Cat Stevens, Randy Newman, Donovan, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro…)  While I’d like to see Carole King get this spot, Zevon has a strong chance this year.  Retiring late night host David Letterman has expressed his wish to see one of his favorite guests in the Hall, and where Letterman goes, Paul Shaffer is never far behind.

7.  NWA:  It’s clear that Toure and Questlove are committed to getting NWA in.  Last year, a lot of folks- including myself- thought they would pull it off, but it was not to be.  With a biopic of the group out in the theatres, and the ceremony in 2016 held in L.A. (within drive-by shooting distance of Compton), it is tough to see how NWA doesn’t make it back onto the ballot.  I am not a fan of their violence and misogyny (two social problems that are by no means limited to rap music; go listen to Nugent sometime if you doubt me.)    But with continuing police violence and discrimination against the black community dominating the news daily, “F— The Police” will keep resonating with the public.

8.  Chic: I feel so bad for Chic.  They have now been nominated nine times for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, more than any other artist except for soul legend Solomon Burke.  Nile Rodgers’ battle with cancer couldn’t muster enough sympathy to take them over the edge, nor could the spectacular success of Rodgers-produced “Get Lucky.”  Chic- or rather, Rodgers and assorted friends- have some new music out this year, but whether this will be enough remains anybody’s guess.  Chic is also a band more well loved by music historians than the general public: they earned less than 2% of the votes in the Hall’s official online fan ballot.

9.  J. Geils Band:  It took four tries, but Jann Werner finally shoe-horned the Paul Butterfield Blues Band into the Hall of Fame last year.  I don’t wish PBBB ill, but I think they leapfrogged over a lot of more deserving and widely respected acts.  Someone once called them “your favorite band’s favorite band,” and that’s fair; they just didn’t jive much with the public, despite some fine live albums and some atypical hits like “Centerfold” that were as far from the band’s raison d’être as “You’re the Inspiration” was from Chicago Transit Authority.  My guess is that PBBB’s successful induction will only encourage the Nom Com’s bad habits, and they will pick another Werner-sanctioned blues outfit filled with white boys.  The fact that Peter Wolf inducted PBBB this year is a pretty straightforward signal that we could see J. Geils Band return to the ballot for the fourth time after a few years’ absence.

10.  Big Star: Big Star is often considered to have a “cult following” despite a conspicuously bad chart performance.  Their fingerprints are all over the 80s and 90s artists like REM, Gin Blossoms, and the Replacements giving them credit; one of their songs was even used as the theme for “That ’70s Show.”  Holly George-Warren published a well-received new book on their tragic frontman, Alex Chilton, and George-Warren has a knack for getting more obscure artists onto the ballot and into the Hall. She was probably responsible for Laura Nyro’s nominations several years ago.  And Big Star seems like a band that could pick up a lot of traction and generate a lot of buzz: rock critics love them, but so do lots of more pedestrian music fans whose interests run wide and deep.  Big Star is like a secret handshake for people who know their shit, musically, and acts like that have a way of showing up when nominees are announced.

11.  Wille Nelson:  On the Dan Patrick Show, Rock Hall president Greg Harris was asked which uninducted artists deserved to be in the Hall.  Harris demured at first and dodged around the question, but the hosts kept badgering him.  The closest Harris got to an answer was an offhand mention of Willie Nelson.  Nelson has been racking up the accolades this year, with a heavy presence at the Grammys and a well-received autobiography.  There is precedent for the Hall putting in country artists who were often duet partners and collaborators with rock and rollers; just look at Johnny Cash and Bonnie Raitt.  And temperamentally, the Red Haired Stranger’s outlaw persona, Farm Aid activism, and egregious use of pot make him a good fit with the qualities the Rock Hall values; he has always been a figure more at home in Woodstock than the Opry.  There will be pressure to induct the 81-year-old singer while he is still among the living, and he’s never had a better chance to make the Rock Hall than this year.

12.  Ben E. King:   Although #2, #8, #10, and #14 all have prominent members who are deceased (and #6 is also gone), most of them have enough living bandmates to show up, collect the award, and put on a show.  If one recent emigrant to Rock and Roll Heaven is going to make it onto the ballot, I have a pretty good feeling that it will be Ben E. King.  I hate to be so callous, but dying is a mixed bag for predicting one’s fortunes in the Rock Hall: it worked for Lou Reed and Donna Summer, but did nothing for Whitney Houston or Davy Jones of the Monkees. Originally, I had Joe Cocker, a great interpretative singer and strong live act, on this list, but I ultimately think Ben E. King will supplant him if we allot one spot to “recently deceased legend.”  “Stand By Me” is one of the timeless songs of the 20th century, and is only rivaled in my opinion by “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” as the best song of the early 60s.  The older guys on the Nom Com will remember his career fondly, and the younger folks will still be familiar enough with his catalog to give some sympathy votes.  And between Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, all four Beatles, and all four members of CSNY among many others, heaven knows that the Rock Hall loves having new members into its so-called Clyde McPhatter Club of multiple inductees.  (Like McPhatter, King is already inducted as a member of the Drifters.)

13.  MC5: The path to nomination for MC5, a short-lived group without much mainstream success, lies through Tom Morello.  MC5 was a proto-punk band clamoring for revolution in “Kick Out the Jams,” in terms that strongly anticipate Rage Against the Machine.  I think Future Rock Legends was on the right track by predicting his nomination last year, and they were already on the ballot back in 2003.

14.  Peter, Paul & Mary:  And now, finally, we come to- quite appropriately- my “Hail Mary” prediction, the most far-fetched selection on my list.  When Bob Dylan gave a speech at Musi-cares on his career, he singled out the trio for characteristically back-handed praise: “I didn’t usually think of myself as writing songs for others to sing, but it was starting to happen. And it couldn’t have happened with a better group. They took a song of mine that I’d recorded before that was buried on one of my early records (‘Blowin’ in the Wind’), and they turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it. I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.”  Tom Morello was a performer at the event, so hopefully, he was paying attention to Dylan’s sage words.  But more than this, PP&M have been getting some high-profile attention lately.  In 2014, a two-years-behind-schedule retrospective for their 50th anniversary was published, with no less a figure than Secretary of State John Kerry writing the foreword.  What’s more, the Rock Hall summer film series is showing Festival!, a documentary on the great folk festivals of the 1960s, and the description of the film gives special attention to Peter, Paul & Mary, as well as Joan Baez (who might conceivably take this slot away from the trio).  To continue the momentum in their favor, the recent series of 50th anniversaries from the Freedom Struggle reminds us all of the courage and commitment the three of them showed, having performed at the March on Washington, and later speaking out against Vietnam and Apartheid.  And for most Rock Hall voters, left-wing activism never hurt anyone’s chances.  If I am reading these tea leaves correctly, all this amounts to the clearest chance a pure 60s folk act has had in a long time.

15.  Janet Jackson:  So far, we are missing one thing: a showstopper, a headliner.  No Rock Hall induction ceremony is complete without one, especially now that there is an expensive contract with HBO to honor.  It’s got to be Janet’s year.  My friends over at the Induct Janet social media campaign have continued to fight the good fight.  They have made sound arguments and politely but persistently lobbying musical critics and Nom Com members to recognize Miss Jackson’s contributions to 80s and 90s R&B and dance music.  Given how most online campaigns to induct certain artists are angry, barely literate screeds about the Nom Com’s bias and ignorance, their tact and dignity stand out.  Jackson’s chances are given a boost by her recent announcement that a new album and tour are in the works; this will be no nostalgia nomination, but a pick for an active, working artist.  She’s influential, she has a boatload of hits, and she dominated her era in popular music history.  Janet deserves to be in, and at any rate, it is really weird that Tito Jackson is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Janet is not.

— Here are some of the tougher cuts from this list, and possible acts that might usurp a spot when I post the final predictions: Joe Cocker (the death rule), L.L. Cool J. (he got the most votes from the Nom Com one year, yet he didn’t even make the ballot last year.  What’s up with that?  Did support for him cool, or are they still clearing the board for NWA?) Joan Baez (the folk emphasis, in lieu of PP&M), Kate Bush (in my opinion, the most logical female artist to be inducted next after Janet, but the Hall is slightly biased against English acts that didn’t make it that big in America), The Cure, War, and The Spinners.  Because I think this will be viewed as a ‘last chance before the mid-90s groups come of age’ ballot, I do not include any acts that are newly eligible this year.  And that was a tough choice, because out of those artists, Mariah Carey will certainly make it some day, and maybe Alice In Chains, while Smashing Pumpkins were my last cut from the list.  Ultimately, I think the Nom Com will want a clearer path of victory for Nine Inch Nails, and most will conclude Sonic Youth, a key SP influence, provides enough competition as it is.

So, there’s my 15 picks.  This covers most of the bases, in terms of sub-genres of rock and roll, different eras, and racial representation.  Given this excellent infographic on how few women are in the Rock Hall and Jett’s entreaties to induct more women, my list includes three key women in rock history (as well as the Chic singers): Janet Jackson, Mary Travers, and Kim Gordon.  And each thrived in different ways: Jackson as a songwriter, dancer, trendsetter, and producer; Travers for her political activism and inability to suffer fools; and Gordon’s long-term influence and instrumental proficiency.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section!  I’d be curious to know: which 5 artists would you vote for if this was the actual ballot?  If it were me, I’d say: Janet Jackson; Peter Paul & Mary; Deep Purple; Chic; and either Yes or Ben E. King for that fifth spot.  Eh, probably Yes, if only to pave the way for the Moody Blues or Jethro Tull next year.

**Disclaimer: these are, again, simply the artists who I predict the Nominating Committee will select.  If I had my wish, these fifteen artists- chosen from an array of different genres and eras in rock’s history- would be picked: Chicago, Carole King, Dire Straits, The Zombies, Indigo Girls, Weird Al Yankovic, Peter, Paul & Mary, Kraftwerk, The Spinners, De La Soul, Mariah Carey, Dead Kennedys, Jethro Tull, Pixies, and Chic.

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.


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