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We know the technique; but what’s the source of straw man? A poet in the 18th century responded to critical judgment with “Critics, who like the scarecrows stand/upon the poet’s common land.” The best guess about the trope’s origin is the farmer’s scarecrow — an old coat and hat set up on a pole and stuffed with straw to resemble a human sentry and frighten hungry blackbirds away from vegetable seedlings.
Though it appeared in a somewhat sexist 17th-century English saying — “A man of straw is worth a woman of gold” — in U.S. politics it was made famous in 1912 by President William Howard Taft, who had been set in place by the retiring Theodore Roosevelt four years earlier but who was being savaged by Teddy’s campaign to get his old job back: “I was a man of straw; but I have been a man of straw long enough. Every man who has blood in his body, and who has been misrepresented as I have . . . is forced to fight.” Taft won renomination, but Roosevelt ran as a “Bull Moose” independent, splitting Republicans and helping elect Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat.
Early in the 2008 primary season, The New York Post — not inclined to support most Democrats — surprised readers with the front-page headline “Post Endorses Obama.” David Carr, media reporter for The Times, asked rhetorically, “Why did The Post kick Senator Clinton to the curb?” While noting that the relationship between Rupert Murdoch of The Post and the Clintons was complicated, he wrote that the endorsement “invited suggestions that Mr. Murdoch was using The New York Post to set up a straw man for the Republicans to mow down in the fall.”
The noun phrase straw man, now used as a compound adjective as in “straw-man device, technique or issue,” was popularized in American culture by “The Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy (played by Judy Garland in the 1939 movie), backed up by the Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), slaps the paw of the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) for frightening her dog Toto and says, “It’s bad enough picking on a straw man, but when you go around picking on poor little dogs. . . .” The meaning is clear: a figure of a man stuffed with a cheap material may appear scary but is really weak and defenseless.
In the late 20th century, the metaphor was challenged by empty suit, but that was directed mainly at male business executives; as suits lose their fashion dominance, the old straw man endures both as a noun phrase and a compound adjective, scaring off flights of speechwriting fantasies.