What "surprises" Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik (8/30/09) more than this summer's news full of "baroque conspiracy theories" and "weepy hysteria" is "the idea that these are somehow unprecedented."
Hiltzik looks back to an earlier era of supposed presidential "socialism" in the U.S. to see such current claims as "merely the latest examples of a phenomenon that might be called Wirtism"–a label Hiltzik "just coined… 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.
One "reason not to chuckle condescendingly at Wirt," Hiltzik warns, "is the thought of what might happen were he to walk the Earth today," when Hiltzik thinks that "rather than being disowned in embarrassment, he'd be lionized as a purveyor of an alternate truth" while "given a gig on cable news and touted as a presidential contender for 2012."