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The Wizard of Oz

Was the Classic Story a Political Commentary?

The 1896 election had two lasting impacts on American life. First, it launched an era of Republican dominance that enabled the GOP to occupy the White House for 28 out of the next 36 years. The second impact was that it may have inspired "The Wizard of Oz," a classic American tale that became an annual staple of prime time television in the pre-Cable, pre-Internet era.

In 1896, William McKinley was the Republican candidate who many saw as a puppet of Ohio party boss Mark Hanna. McKinley didn't campaign around the country as was traditional at the time. He stayed at home and issued pronouncements that were carried far and wide by the press and Republican political hacks. In the imagery of the Wizard of Oz, McKinley became the Wizard himself a leader that no one had really seen and who issued scary commands from behind a curtain.

The Cowardly Lion was a caricature of the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan and a commentary on his foreign policy views. The reference may have been tied to Bryan's opposition to the Spanish-American War (Bryan's anti-Imperialism became a major issue in his election 1900 rematch with McKinley).

The Tin Man and Scarecrow are said to reflect what the author saw as the natural alliance between farmers and factory workers. In reality, populist farm communities found it more difficult than expected to form alliances with the new manufacturing class of workers.

Dorothy represented the natural goodness in all of us.

The Wicked Witch of the East was a reference to Mortgage Bankers who were widely hated in an era of economic turmoil and frequent foreclosures. That's why this particular witch was killed when a house fell on her.

As for the Wicked Witch of the West, she represented drought or perhaps the land barons of the West who exploited the drought to swallow up the land of small farmers. That is why Dorothy was able to kill the Witch by throwing water at her.

One of the more interesting Wizard of Oz tidbits involves the Yellow Brick Road and Ruby Slippers.

In the original story, the slippers were Silver. This was a reference to the monetary debate of the day, a populist desire to change from the gold standard to money backed by silver and gold. The slippers were changed from silver to ruby for the movie. At one point, the Smithsonian exhibit of the Ruby Slippers showed a script with the word silver scratched out and replaced with ruby.

There are two theories about this. One is that MGM had developed "technicolor" and wanted to show it off. Another version is that the slippers were changed from silver to ruby because the silver and gold connection still controversial in some quarters.

Even the name Oz, an abbreviation for ounces, may have been related to the political battles of the time. In this case, a reference to 16 ounces of silver being equal to 1 ounce of gold.

Before you ask, I apologize for not remembering the role of Toto. All of this information is from a lecture by a mentor of mine, Political Science Professor Sid Milkis (currently at the University of Virginia). While Sid taught a wonderful course on American Political Parties, I am sure that his Wizard of Oz lectures were always the best remembered by his students.

There is no direct evidence that the 1896 election itself inspired Frank Baum to write the Wizard of Oz. But, to many commentators, the details are more than mere coincidence.

Since I have written elsewhere that Election 2004 has many similarities to 1896, I'd love to hear your ideas on how today's personalities fit into the Wizard of Oz. Send us your casting chart.

Finally, Sid Milkis and a mutual friend Marc Landy have written Presidential Greatness. It's a book worth reading even though it doesn't have Wizard of Oz movie potential.

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