What surprises me most about the summer of distemper now thankfully drawing to a close isn't its baroque conspiracy theories, extreme political opportunism and public displays of weepy hysteria, so much as the idea that these are somehow unprecedented.
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.
Indeed, the Wirt affair is an instructive prequel to this summer's outbreak of political germ warfare. Wirt's story played on the public's fear of the unknown in a time of political and economic stress -- indeed, he offered a concrete foundation for the paranoia about the Roosevelt administration's "radicalism" and "socialism" percolating through portions of the electorate, not to mention through the boardrooms of big business.
Rather a rube himself, he allowed himself to be exploited by wealthy and powerful individuals with a vehement anti-New Deal agenda.
On the plus side, the Roosevelt White House and Democrats in Congress were unafraid to meet his charges head-on. By comparison, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats are still hunting for the best formula to counter the brazen mendacity of right-wing attacks on healthcare reform, recovery policy and the president personally.
Prior to moving into the national spotlight, Wirt was schools superintendent of Gary, Ind., where he was known as an advocate of progressive pedagogy. He was also a "crank" -- to use a popular term of the era -- on monetary policy.
Wirt felt FDR hadn't gone nearly far enough in devaluing the dollar as a tool of recovery. The only explanation he could imagine for Roosevelt's timidity was that he had fallen under the sway of communists. As he imagined the scenario, the plotters hoped to thwart recovery, thereby setting the stage for a government seizure of the means of production.
He soon joined up with a right-wing group called the Committee for the Nation. The committee resembled today's AstroTurf organizations, which parade as public-spirited grass-roots advocacy bodies despite really serving as fronts for big business and special interests; its leaders included the chairmen of Sears, Roebuck and Bankers Life Insurance Co., who were intent on killing New Deal initiatives like a new pure food and drug bill (eventually passed in 1938) and Wall Street regulations.
In March 1934, the committee publicized a statement in which Wirt recalled hearing about a "concrete plan" for the overthrow of the American government from a group of unnamed "Brain Trusters."
"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.
The Republican Party, which thought it had found an ideal instrument to erode Roosevelt's huge popularity, quickly disclaimed responsibility for the discredited Wirt.
"Thus, flatter than a crepe Suzette, fell the Red Scare of 1934," concluded Time magazine. The man himself soon vanished into an obscurity so complete that today, every resurgence of Wirtism seems utterly new.
Yet resurge it does. Today's airwaves and op-ed columns are teeming with supposed "experts" dispensing arrant nonsense: Former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey is continually turned to for her views on healthcare despite her record of misrepresenting the provisions and implications of reform proposals.
Some of the supposedly grass-roots town hall protests this summer were reportedly promoted and organized by FreedomWorks, whose leaders have included former GOP House Leader Dick Armey and former Bush administration official and corporate lobbyist C. Boyden Gray -- figures about as "grass-roots" as the chairman of Sears in 1934.
The notion that President Obama, like Wirt's anonymous Brain Trusters, is intent on making the United States into a socialist state exerts a powerful pull on the gullible -- some of whom think nothing of displaying their concerns by carrying firearms into public meetings.
The Wirt affair should resonate today because he, like today's corporate fronts and gun-toting hysterics, tapped into a strain of thinking that needs to be publicly and aggressively neutralized if it is not to spread its poison. As Time observed in its postmortem of that earlier case, Wirt had "grotesquely caricatured a viewpoint, but he had nevertheless indicated its presence."
Indeed, the main reason not to chuckle condescendingly at Wirt is the thought of what might happen were he to walk the Earth today.
Rather than being disowned in embarrassment, he'd be lionized as a purveyor of an alternate truth -- "Bill the teacher," perhaps -- given a gig on cable news and touted as a presidential contender for 2012. He'd have a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.
In today's world, the more outlandish his accusations the better. For while America has made great strides since 1934 in science, civil rights and many other fields, our ability to recognize humbug for what it is seems to have gotten much, much worse.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Mondays and Thursdays and occasionally on other days. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read him at www.latimes.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.