CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Recent analyses of the 2012 presidential election campaign bring to mind another epic quest in American life: The search by Dorothy and her friends for the Wizard of Oz.
The parallels are unmistakable. Dorothy (an American Everywoman) has been violently separated from her homeland and needs a Wizard's help in restoring her to her familiar, unchanging Kansas. During her trip she meets three males who might help her -- a Scarecrow in need of a brain, a Tin Woodsman seeking a heart, and a Cowardly Lion lacking courage. These are three allegorical characters with striking similarities to Presidents past, present, and possibly future.
George Bush, proudly anti-intellectual, but seeking respect, Barack Obama, seemingly lacking the courage of his convictions, and Mitt Romney, heartless chopper of deadwood. Lest any reader take offense at my depiction, I hasten to point out that in L. Frank Baum's novel, the brainless, gutless, and emotionally challenged trio often demonstrate the opposite characteristics. Scarecrow uses his head, Lion often roars, and Tin Man shows compassion, at least to bugs. At one point the Lion even envies the Tin Man: "Perhaps, if I had no heart I should not be a coward."
The point is that there is something familiar and timeless about this year's politics. I am not claiming that Baum, whose novel has been interpreted as a commentary on Populism, the Gold Standard, and William Jennings Bryan, was somehow able to predict the future. It is simply that in creating his children's fairy tale Baum used some familiar archetypes. History is replete with examples of vacuous persons who acquire knowledge, timid souls who take bold action, and callous persons who become sensitive. That the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man are strikingly appropriate figures for the early 21st century is just coincidence.
Or is it? There seems to be something especially appealing to Americans about stories of the trials and tribulations of a group of friends, often three men and a woman, seeking happiness. Think of precocious Lucy in "Peanuts" surrounded by the wishy-washy Charlie Brown, the thumb-sucking Linus, and the affectless Schroeder, or everywoman Elaine and her pals -- loony Kramer, faint-hearted George, and master of ironic cruelty Jerry Seinfeld. The archetypes are flexible, suitable to different times and genres.
Compare the seekers in The Wizard of Oz to those of contemporary America. They Wizard turns out to be an elderly man from the Midwest who got to Oz in a circus balloon. He has presided over the land for many years by smoke and mirrors and has fooled everyone into thinking he saved the country. He is charming and uses his genial disposition to convince Dorothy's companions that he has given them the qualities they seek. Finally, however, he confesses to being just a clever salesman, a humbug.
The Wizard is an archetypical humbug, providing the model for Ronald Reagan, whom the current trio of chief executives and would-be chiefs frequently cite as their inspiration for policy and governance. President Reagan, salesman for General Electric, Van Heusen shirts, Chesterfield cigarettes, and the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), is as amiable a wizard as anyone would want to save an emerald land from wicked witches, flying monkeys, and other terrorists. Like Dorothy, we'll all follow the Yellow Brick Road to the voting booth, work our magic behind the curtain, and hope for a transformation of our favorite character. Maybe he can also restore Kansas to the 19th century.
Mergen, of Franklin, is a retired American Studies professor from George Washington University and is the author of "Snow in America" and "Weather Matters: An American Cultural History Since 1900."