The familiar tale of William A. Wirt

THE FAMILIAR TALE OF WILLIAM A. WIRT…. The LA Times‘ Michael Hiltzik had a terrific item yesterday on a footnote of history named William A. Wirt, who garnered some notoriety in 1934. His claim to fame? Wirt claimed he had “discovered” evidence of a plot within FDR’s administration to launch a Bolshevik takeover of the United States.

As silly as this was, this was an era when Roosevelt’s New Deal was blasted by the Teabaggers of the day as radical socialism. With that in mind, Wirt became a Republican cause celebre for a while, hooking up with right-wing astroturf groups of the day, garnering all kind of media attention, and even testifying before Congress about his evidence of a “concrete plan” for the overthrow of the U.S. government crafted by members of FDR’s “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).

Wirt’s provocative tale soon after fell apart; his “evidence” crumbled; and Republican leaders decided they didn’t want anything to do with the guy. He quickly vanished from the public spotlight.

And that, of course, highlights a difference between then and now. William A. Wirt sounds quite a bit like Glenn Beck, Betsy McCaughey, Dick Armey, and assorted other right-wing personalities that litter the American landscape in the 21st century, spreading nonsense. Indeed, they’re spreading almost identical nonsense, claiming to have evidence of President Obama launching a nefarious Nazi/Soviet/Marxist/Illuminati scheme.

But when their tales fall apart, there are no consequences.

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.

Well said.