The man behind the curtain
As the nation reels from the latest round of President Trump’s impeachment, and anticipating a full House vote next week, I’d like to pause and express my everlasting gratitude to Lyman Frank Baum.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, his work surely will. Baum (18561919) was the author of “The Wizard of Oz,” originally titled with an extra word — “Wonderful” — preceding “Wizard.” A prolific writer, Baum actually wrote a series of 14 Oz books, as well as another 41 novels, 83 short stories, more than 200 poems and 42 scripts.
The 1939 film based upon his original Oz novel is familiar to every generation of Americans since Judy Garland sang her way over the rainbow and into Munchkinland. Children can now watch it every day, if they like, but when I was a kid in the 1950s, the movie came on television just once a year. The annual family viewing in our house was nearly as exciting as Christmas morning.
Watching “The Wizard of Oz” a few decades later with wee members of my own family produced a vicarious if more-mature appreciation of the fictional elements: odd-duck characters that nevertheless seemed oddly familiar; the quite explicit battle between the forces of good and evil; and, to the point of all human existence, the profound desire for Home, which, as you know, isn’t just a place.
But Baum’s brilliance didn’t fully become manifest for me until I became a (largely) political columnist and, specifically, during the past two impeachment proceedings to which I’ve borne witness. Without Baum’s literary wizardry, one could hardly comment on modern-day politics. At least his exotic imagination produced helpful hints about human nature and a yellow-brick roadmap for discovering character.
Thus, when the House Judiciary Committee passed two articles of impeachment Friday morning, I half-expected Munchkins to pop out from under oversized mushrooms and pots of flowers to proclaim the Wicked One (nearly) dead.
Even back in Baum’s day, a few commentators tried to extract political messages from the novel, which also became a successful Broadway play before being adapted to film. Were there populist messages therein? A Republican, Baum reportedly didn’t support the populist movement of 1890-92, though he was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage. His fealty to equality perhaps produced Dorothy Gale, who surely was among our earliest adventure-girls.
In 1998, when Bill Clinton was impeached by the House (he was acquitted by the Senate), my thoughts inevitably turned to Oz, where similarities seemed almost pre-ordained. Clinton was the wizard, blowing (cigar) smoke from his little hidden office behind the heavily draped Oval Office. Monica Lewinsky was Dorothy, whose blue gingham dress turned solid navy; Democrats were the flying monkeys; and the witches I leave to you.
Likewise, today, there’s no escaping Oz, though the latest characters may be even better cast than those before. Of note, the armies of good and evil have switched sides, with Republicans representing the dark forces this time and Democrats the moral rectitude of Munchkins.
Trump is surpassing as the Wizard of Oz — the carnivalbarking imposter who really has no magical powers but has fooled Emerald City’s citizens into believing he does. The media, naturally, are the flying monkeys, and the Wicked Witch of the East, well, again I leave this to you. Depending on one’s politics, the Good Witch of the North, Glinda, may be either Ivanka Trump or Hillary Clinton.
Rudy Giuliani plays the Wizard’s gatekeeper, obviously. The Cowardly Lion, the heartless Tin Man and the empty-headed Scarecrow are, respectively — oh, this is too much fun — Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.; and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
Aunty Em and Uncle Henry would be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. Toto, alas, is Conan the hero-dog, who pulls back the curtain to reveal the dishonest Trump. In the final moments, the disgraced Wizard, incompetent as ever, loses control of his private balloon and abandons poor Dorothy to find her own way home.
Seeking such parallels isn’t only cocktail-hour entertainment but also helps one navigate the drama around us. In assigning roles, it is necessary to evaluate the character of participants and their conscious or unconscious motivations. There are only so many sorts of conflicts and resolutions in the annals of human behavior.
Baum has somehow managed to make them both accessible and timeless.
This was his true genius, for which we — and future historians — remain ever in his debt.