Double talk

Long before anyone coined the sugar-coated sinker "edutainment," Walt Disney World was putting children into advanced stages of REM sleep with The Hall of Presidents. Right there in what was supposed to be a hap-hap-happy kid's paradise was a history lesson, remarkably well-done, but schoolwork nonetheless. Nothing is as likely to inspire a child to roll their eyes toward heaven and collapse like a malaria patient than the sound of a fife and drum corps and the phrase "narrated by Dr. Maya Angelou."

She wasn't the narrator when I was a kid in the '70s. I don't know who was, but I do remember the sober spectacle because as a kid it's the one thing your parents talk you into doing at Disney, not the reverse. The Hall of Presidents is an educational feature that expounds on the history of the United States. You watch a movie that talks about the framing of the Constitution, the Civil War, the values of freedom and equality for all and how every generation shares the responsibility for our continued troubles and successes. But the real attraction is the Audio-Animatronic presidents. They have all of them in there, which makes the current count 42, and they are remarkable works of robotics and art, more graceful and lifelike in their movements than a lot of real people. I doubt I'd seen the show since Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton joined the pageant, and in preparing to revisit the attraction, braced myself for what I recalled as a two-hour ordeal. It was actually only about 15 minutes. That's how fun it is for kids.

I returned because Bill Clinton is in a bit of trouble with Congress, though he has not yet been impeached by Disney. Was there anything in his words or mannerisms that now would be ironic or inappropriate? It is not enough that the actual president is being watched more closely than the Zapruder film. We at the Weekly wanted to check his mechanical mannequin for his approval rating. If you think the media are beating this thing to death, clip this story out to prove your point at parties.

"We the People" is the title of the current show, revised after Clinton's 1992 election to include the first speech by a sitting president. The hall debuted at Disney World in 1971 and fulfilled Walt's vision to put robots of all the presidents together on one stage. But for more than 20 years it was Abe Lincoln, safely dead, whose words fanned the fires of patriotism. Abe still speaks, but not before Clinton yaks for a full four minutes in words he recorded from a speech written for the show by lyricist Tim Rice, who won an Oscar for the songs in Disney's "Aladdin."

The robot Clinton was not smeared with lobbed tomatoes or decapitated by a rock-throwing mob. He looked OK, though not nearly as good as the genuine article. He was not wearing one of Monica's ties.

A snicker or two went up as he was introduced during the second show I sat through, but at an earlier showing our embattled leader merited a round of applause and heartfelt cheering. Lincoln didn't get any reaction at all. But then, Lincoln hasn't been on TV a lot lately. The more layers of time thrown over a person, the easier it is not to remember them as real guys who struggled with the same temptations and tough decisions as they do now, but just to deify them, or perhaps not even to think of them at all for what little relevance they have on our lives (John Tyler? William Henry Harrison?). No one snickered at Jefferson. Nixon was greeted with silence. There was a murmur over Kennedy, but there always will be. Only Clinton drew any reactions to the surface.

His speech was of the motivational patriotism variety: "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what's right with America" -- certainly nothing for Disney to be embarrassed by. One young woman said she thought it was fine, she had nothing against Clinton and he should be left alone. A couple of guys wearing Harvard Business School T-shirts did their best "I did not have sex with that woman" impressions while exiting; they weren't half bad, and you could believe it of either of them about any woman at all. An older woman said she wished Clinton was not only not in the Hall, but not anywhere; she had been a firm supporter and so believed in him, but the discovery that he had lied seemed to embarrass as much as anger her. Her companion said, "I think just the opposite, he's a good man doing a good job. They should just leave him alone." An older gentleman said he was not a Clinton supporter but thought the speech was fine. He and his wife evaded further questions like they'd just wandered into a gnat cloud and couldn't wait to get away.

A younger couple from North Carolina had more to say. "I think they should throw them all out and start over again," said the man, averring that half of all politicians were crooks. His wife said that if they were going to let Clinton off the hook, they sure owed Nixon a big apology. Before I could ask her what kind of head injury she had, the two changed trains of thought, addressing the staggering amount of resources that has gone into the breaking of a president. They saw people here begging on the streets Christmas Day, they said; maybe we should be focusing on other things.

Back inside, people waiting for the next show milled about the lobby, checking out the presidential portraits that line the walls. It isn't hard to notice that Clinton's isn't like the others. While presidents who preceded him benefit from photographic realism and are each depicted with a look of quiet, certain authority, Clinton's picture is a bit on the shaggier side, much more abstract. Not only that; he looks like he's wincing and slightly pained, like maybe his boxers or briefs are a little too tight.

"Why did they hit me?" one tourist offered as a caption. Then he added, "Well, we know why." Painted in 1993, Clinton's image seems to foreshadow the discomfort to come. But at least it's well-hung.

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