Today is Smoke and Mirrors Day. It is sometimes referred to as National Smoke and Mirrors Day or the Festival of Smoke and Mirrors although, perhaps fittingly, we know of no festival occurring today.
Magicians have long used distracting bursts of smoke to mask the extension or retraction of mirrors. The props help them make objects seem to appear and disappear. When the illusion is successful, audience members respond with childlike wonder. They may have come, in part, to try to figure out how it’s done but they’ve also bought the ticket hoping to be tricked. They are delighted at the deception.
These days, “smoke and mirrors” refers to the political practice of making unsupported, deflective statements calculated to garner favor, obscure incompetence and discourage serious inquiry. While this also requires showmanship on a grand scale, there is nothing delightful about it, as everyone but its promoters and beneficiaries would agree.
According to Phrase Finder, the latter usage dates back to journalist Jimmy Breslin’s 1975 book, How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer. In it, he detailed the process which led to the U.S. House of Representatives’ vote to impeach Richard Nixon. Breslin wrote:
“All political power is primarily an illusion… Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors… If somebody tells you how to look, there can be seen in the smoke great, magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms, and maybe they can be yours.”
“The ability to create the illusion of power, to use mirrors and blue smoke, is one found in unusual people.”
By June 4, 1975, an article in the Lowell Sun flipped the words into their more familiar order:
“Jimmy Breslin alluded to with images, of blue smoke and mirrors in his recently published book on an impeachment summer.”
How can you tell the difference between a magician and a politician? The magician will give you your dollar back after he’s done tricking you. Have a happy and magical Smoke and Mirrors Day!