Back When Trump Had a Shot at 'Person of the Century'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Trump and Warhol in 1983. That horse captures my mood this week.  (Mario Suriani / AP)

In the previous installment of our archive series, Fallows featured a popularity poll of Donald Trump in 1990 that one his wealthy supporters fixed to give the false impression that 81 percent of those surveyed believed that Trump “symbolized what was right with the United States.” (Let’s hope that kind of ballot-box stuffing doesn’t happen in November.) That incident makes me think of another Atlantic piece we came across in our archives: “Vote of the Century,” written by Barbara Wallraff for our November 1992 issue (unavailable online). It’s a dispatch from Lake Buena Vista, Florida, where Walt Disney World is headquartered, and Wallraff reports on what then-CEO Michael Eisner in the following video calls “one of the most significant projects in which the Walt Disney Company has ever embarked”—a decade-long survey to determine the “Person of the Century”:

Here’s Wallraff with more on the ambitious project:

The Electronic Forum is a couple of rooms full of ATM-like kiosks in Epcot Center’s Communicore East building. I walked in out of the sun to find a computer screen inviting me to take a stand, or stands, on the Person of the Century question by choosing up to three contenders from a list of eighty-nine names and a write-in blank. Only thirty names, or twenty-nine and the blank, appeared on the screen at once, but the list is in alphabetical order, and so it was pretty clear from the outset that I could call up more names at the touch of a button. Bill Cosby, Marie Curie...Mao Zedong, George C. Marshall, Maria Montessori...Jim Thorpe, Harry Truman, Donald Trump, Andy Warhol...I spoiled my first ballot trying to flip through the whole list again and again, and had to start over.

She adds, “Obviously, this poll is not scientific. For one thing, anyone can hang around the Electronic Forum all day voting for his or her favorite candidate.” Which is exactly what happened—though not for Trump this time. Here’s the story from Jim Hill at The Orlando Weekly:

If you typed in anyone’s name -- and I mean anyone’s -- the computer registered that entry as a legitimate vote. So, as a gag, Epcot cast members began dropping by on their lunch breaks and typing in the name of a particular employee. At first, it was just a few people doing this. But the gag snowballed. Which is how this cast member ended up on the tote board as one of the top 10 candidates for “Person of the Century.”

Management was furious. But there was no way they could delete the employee’s name without corrupting the results of the whole poll. Plus, there seemed to be no way to stop Epcot employees from typing this guy’s name in.

When Communicore closed in July 1994 to make way for Innoventions, Disney quietly pulled the plug on its poll and pretended the whole thing never happened.

If only we could do the same with the Trump candidacy.