The Wizard of Oz turns eighty years old this summer. The film, that is. The book from which the film was taken, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” was written by Frank Baum almost 120 years ago as a children’s book and published in 1900, at the height of the last great progressive movement in the United States.
Baum’s book was a political allegory. William Jennings Bryan, the “Great Commoner” from Nebraska, had run for president in 1896 on the Democratic ticket. Bryan captured the convention and the nomination with his dramatic “Cross of Gold” speech in which he held his hands aloft, as if being crucified, and brought his audience to rapture with his concluding line: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
Five long seconds passed as Bryan stood like a crucified Christ in front of the massive crowd at the Chicago Coliseum—and then they went bonkers.
Bryan was only thirty-six years old. He challenged from the left, the champion of a progressive movement that had grown in response to the excesses of the Gilded Age. Gold represented power and accumulated wealth, as the dollar was tied to the amount of gold stockpiled by the U.S. Treasury. The problem was that this limited the money supply as the nation was booming in population. Farmers, laborers, and small business owners all found money tight as they sought to borrow to finance their businesses and lives. Wall Street bankers, on the other hand, wanted the money supply to be just as it was, leaving them with all the bargaining chips.
The progressives of the late 19th century became laser focused on increasing the money supply by growing the amount of silver that could be monetized. The “Silverites” like Bryan wanted to coin silver dollars at a fixed weight ratio of 16-to-1 against dollar coins made of gold. The ounce was the measurement used in the bimetallic money system: 16 ounces of gold to 1 of silver.
Hence the Wizard of Oz—oz being the abbreviation for an ounce. Dorothy follows a yellow brick road—symbol of the gold standard. In the book, Dorothy wears silver slippers, not the ruby ones in the film, as she is the representative of everyman or in her case everywoman.
Bryan had caused a political cyclone. He ran against the governor of Ohio, William McKinley, who supported high tariffs and the gold standard. Beginning to see where this might be going?
In the book, the Wizard is McKinley. He rules in the Emerald City, one in which all citizens are required to wear green-shaded spectacles to create the illusion that there is plenty of money for everyone. In this manner, the people are held in bondage through a great deception. Think of the Trump tax cut, if you will.
In fact, Dorothy and her companions are also made to strap on the green spectacles because, they are told by the city’s gatekeeper, “if you do not wear the spectacles the brightness and glory of the Emerald City would blind you.” He fell just short of assuring them that they would get tired of winning, but you get the idea.
Dorothy’s house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, representative of the economic predators of Wall Street. The Munchkins, who suffered under the Wicked Witch of the East, called Dorothy a “noble Sorceress” and welcomed her as a savior. She is sort of like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Green New Deal. Or maybe she is Nancy Pelosi or Elizabeth Warren or maybe just a representative of the Women’s Movement. In any event, she is a bad-ass who in one fell swoop takes down Wall Street.
But Dorothy is not done. In her journey to the Emerald City, sporting her new silver shoes (taken from the Wicked Witch of the East), she rescues three benighted figures. First is the Scarecrow, a stand-in for the farmers of the West who has been buffeted by financial booms and busts. He has grown numb from his abuse, telling Dorothy: “I don’t mind my legs and arms and body being stuffed, because I cannot get hurt. If anyone treads on my toes or sticks a pin into me, it doesn’t matter, for I can’t feel it.” But he does not want people to think him a fool, his head stuffed with straw instead of brains.
Let’s call him Beto from Texas.
Next up, the Tin Woodman. He is the embodiment of the brutality of the mechanization of the Industrial Age. He works so hard and endlessly with his axe that he ends up cutting off all his appendages and becomes a tin man, a heartless automaton.
Today, this figure could be a Silicon Valley worker who perhaps becomes a holograph or a walking digital computer chip. But I like to think of the Tin Man as more of a silver-haired Mike Pence figure—a man who is so homophobic that he cuts off all his appendages and is left heartless for those who are different from him.
And finally, Dorothy encounters the Cowardly Lion. In Frank Baum’s book, the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan—the politician who roars to no effect. Bryan would lose the presidency three times (1896, 1900 and 1908) and later would be known for his role in the Scopes’ Monkey Trial as defender of the Bible against the science of evolution. Kind of like a climate change denier today.
“What is it that makes you a coward?” Dorothy asks in her innocent way. “It’s a mystery,” the Lion replies. “I suppose I was born that way. All the other animals in the forest naturally expect me to be brave.” Maybe he is Beto.
But Bryan was a true economic progressive for his time, lots of programs but all sound and fury, signifying nothing. He is a kind of Bernie Sanders.
The book has harbingers of what was to come one hundred years hence. The winged monkeys are the Tea Party. The deadly poppy field presages the opioid epidemic.
Once the group reaches the Emerald City they encounter Oz himself. He is nothing but image, smoke and mirrors, huffing and puffing in an opulent throne room. His image is that of a beast, nearly as big as an elephant with five long arms and five slim legs. Thick and wooly hair covers his head and body. “I am Oz,” he bellows, “the Great and Terrible.”
He all but speaks with dreadful Tweets.
Then OAC, I mean Dorothy, exposes and shames him. As the curtain falls away, they see standing in the spot of the screen “a little old man, with a bald head and wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were.” Oz begs the group not to let anyone know what they have learned. “I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,” he said in a trembling voice, “I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard.”
They are disgusted. “You’re a humbug,” the Scarecrow admonishes.
“I am a humbug,” Oz admits.
And with that, the evil Wizard is impeached, removed from office, and taken to jail. Oh, wait, that ending is yet to be written.
James Robenalt is the author of four nonfiction books. His first book, Linking Rings, William W. Durbin and the Magic and Mystery of America, is about his great-grandfather, who, among other things, ran William Jennings Bryan’s campaign in Ohio and became the first president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.