Michael Eisner, Going Out Like a Mouse

Kids at the American History Museum were all ears for Michael Eisner and Mickey Mouse.
Kids at the American History Museum were all ears for Michael Eisner and Mickey Mouse. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 10, 2005

This is how we like our illusions in America: The avuncular corporate chieftain towers over a bevy of cute children wearing Mickey Mouse ears. His benign smile signals that all is right in the Wonderful World of Disney, whose mythmaking machinery was celebrated yesterday at the National Museum of American History. Yes, Michael Eisner, the Walt Disney Co. CEO himself, came to donate two gleaming pieces of vintage Disneyland rides -- a Dumbo the Flying Elephant car and a big cup from the Mad Tea Party.

"Thank you, guys," Eisner said to the kiddie-props at his feet, who giggled and crunched gold streamers into little piles of Mylar treasure. In his heavy, dark suit and Mickey-pattern tie, the 6-foot-3 Eisner looked just slightly impatient, like a father who's been forced into yet another happy family photo moment in an interminable, sweaty line at Disneyland.

And lest anyone forget, that's what bought Eisner to Washington: the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, the original park in Southern California that ol' Uncle Walt himself called "this happy place" upon its opening. The donation of two iconic ride vehicles to the Smithsonian coincides with what Disney PR people trumpet as the "happiest celebration on Earth."

Once the highest-paid CEO in America, Eisner ruled the Mouse House for more than 20 years. His reign was marked by major expansion, but marred by a reputation for bullying and belittling others. "The Disney empire was rife with pain, confusion, lying and wasted opportunities," as Bob Woodward wrote in a Washington Post review of James Stewart's new book, "DisneyWar." "How did anyone tolerate the lack of charity, or the unending intrigue, ridicule and bad-mouthing?"

But never mind: Yesterday morning Smithsonian staffers seemed to feel privileged, excited and happy indeed to lay eyes upon Eisner. True, he was ousted as Disney chairman by his board of directors last year in a remarkable rebellion, and will leave the company this fall, but all that only seems to make him more of a corporate legend. Whatever his faults, he still pulled in $8.25 million in fiscal 2004.

There was a piped-in flourish of "When You Wish Upon a Star" as Eisner took to the podium in the exhibit hall's west corridor. The chief exec offered platitudes such as: "At Disneyland, everything is possible -- just like America." The park speaks to "the spirit of this country."

It's all about optimism and imagination: An elephant that glides through the air on outstretched ears! A twirling Mad Hatter's tea cup that might cause you to toss your cookies but is still such dizzying fun to ride! According to Eisner, they represent "what is fantastic about Fantasyland."

"It's really an honor to have you here," Brent Glass, director of the museum, told Eisner after they signed documents deeding over the artifacts, which will be on display through Labor Day. Then Eisner introduced the always-ebullient Mickey, calling him the real boss of the Disney operation. There were booms and flying streamers as Mickey tugged a tasseled cord to part the royal blue curtains and officially unveil the exhibit. For a moment, one side refused to drop -- the only glitch in a perfectly stage-managed event.

Eisner, 63, is now on a sort of farewell tour, also flacking a book about his childhood summer camp experiences. He said one of his final corporate duties will be opening a Disney park in Hong Kong in September.

"Yes, it's a bit nostalgic," he said after the ceremony, but pledged he wouldn't disappear entirely from the Magic Kingdom. "I still have a great interest in the company. Therefore I'm not actually leaving in my heart." As for such ceremonial events, "I'll probably be at them forever," he said.

During his time at Disney, Eisner may have made enemies by somewhat infamously (and allegedly) calling Steve Jobs, chairman of Pixar, "a Shiite Muslim," and saying of rival Jeffrey Katzenberg, "I think I hate the little midget." But it's only business, after all. History marches on.

In the museum, "Disneyland: The First 50 Years" sits near the "Engines of Change" exhibit and another devoted to clocks. In a few months Dumbo and the Tea Party cup will go into storage, but they'll remain in the national memory, like the promise of a happier world.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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