Santayana’s Ghost has been restless these past two months. Now we know why: Summer 2009 replayed summer 1934.
Micheal Hiltzik explained it in a column in the Los Angeles Times:
To me they’re merely the latest examples of a phenomenon that might be called Wirtism.
If you find the term unfamiliar, that’s because I just coined it to honor the memory of William A. Wirt. Wirt’s day in the sun came back in 1934, when the obscure Midwestern blowhard placed himself at the center of a political maelstrom by “discovering” a plot by members of Franklin Roosevelt’s Brain Trust to launch a Bolshevik takeover of the United States.
That Wirt’s yarn was transparently absurd didn’t keep it from being taken seriously on the front pages of newspapers coast to coast, including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. He gave speeches, wrote a book and went to Washington to give personal testimony at a standing-room-only congressional hearing.
If that reminds you of the overly solicitous treatment given by the press, cable news programs and Republican office holders to purveyors of such lurid claptrap as the Obama birth certificate story or the fantasy of healthcare “death panels,” now you know why it pays to study history.
How did it end? Not soon enough, or well enough, but it ended:
“Roosevelt is only the Kerensky of this revolution,” he quoted them. (Kerensky was the provisional leader of Russia just before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.) The hoodwinked president would be permitted to stay in office, they said, “until we are ready to supplant him with a Stalin.”
Those words caused an immediate sensation. Wirt hedged on naming the treasonous “Brain Trusters” — which only intensified the public mania. Into the vacuum of information poured supposition masquerading as fact (certainly a familiar phenomenon today). This newspaper, then a pillar of Republicanism, gave Wirt the benefit of the doubt on the grounds that “the activities of the ‘brain trust’ during the past year fit neatly into the Communistic scheme” he described — a reminder that the most potent fabrications are those that confirm what the listener wants to believe.
For that’s what Wirt’s story was — a fabrication. Hauled before Congress, he said he heard of the plot during a party at a friend’s home in Virginia. The other guests, mostly low-level government employees without any connection to the Brain Trust, subsequently testified that none of them could have mentioned Kerensky or Stalin even if they wished, because Wirt monopolized the dinner-table conversation with a four-hour harangue about monetary policy.
Now you know. So don’t act stupidly.