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on October 30, 2003
American history has produced a number of colorful and intriguing individuals who have lost the presidential election. Wendell Willkie, while possessing much of the intellectual gravity of a Stevenson and the charisma of a Goldwater or LaFollete, differs from them in at least one crucial respect: he was not a professional politician and in fact never held any elected office, only running for the same when he ran for President in 1940 and briefly again in 1944. Willkie's politics also do not fit the mold, as he was far from a traditional party standard bearer, but rather advocated "liberal" policies at odds with the conservative hidebounds views of the Republicans, particularly during the era preceding the Second World War, that great conflict being what propelled Willkie into his unique place in American history.

Willkie came from modest roots in the midwest, his father being a small town lawyer in Elwood, Indiana to where he returned to officially kick off his presidential campaign in 1940 in a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell. Willkie's politics were those of a liberal Woodrow Wilson democrat without the racism of the former, but as a corporate lawyer, first in Akron and then in New York, he took on what he saw as the excesses of the New Deal in regulating business. This activity, particularly his attempts to reign in the Tennesee Valley Authority resulted in his being made president of the utilities giant, Commonwealth & Southern, resulting in his becoming a national public figure.

The growing clouds of war caused great concern to Willkie who felt that America must not abandon Europe and Britain to Nazi Germany. It was in that context that he entered the 1940 Republican presidential nomination contest after switching parties the year before in which he remained a distant contender until a few weeks before the convention. The turn around in Willkie's prospects occurred as a result of the Fall of France in June 1940 on the eve of the convention which caused many people to be deeply concerned about the prospect of the nomination and possible election of one of the hidebound isolationists that were leading the pack at the time. As a result and with the help of a large grass roots organization and the support of Henry Luce and his publishing empire, Willkie was able to wrest the nomination from Taft and Dewey after the convention became deadlocked even though he had not run in any primaries.

Willkie ran an aggressive and flamboyant campaign emphasizing the need to aid the besieged Allies and expressing concern over the
prospect of FDR or any president being elected to a third term. The similarity in views with Roosevelt not only on the war but on much of the New Deal, caused a blurring of the differences between the two candidates to Willkie's detriment, nothwithstanding the impressively spirited nature of his campaign. After the election, he was tapped by Roosevelt to go on two factfinding trips, the first to Britain during the Blitz in 1941, the second an around the world trip to visit the war theaters and their leaders. This trip, which resulted in Willkie's famous book, "One World", showed the world, like Willkie's 1940 campaign previously, that America was united in opposing the Axis and fascism. As noteworthy as all this was, it hurt Willkie in the world of Republican partisan politics and his 1944 campaign was stillborn and he himself died unexpectedly later that year after a brief illness. While Willkie failed to either become President or instill progressive traditions in the Republican party, he left a lasting legacy. More than a mere shill for FDR (a role he played to the hilt), Willkie was an exemplar of the best of American society during one of the greatest periods of crisis it has faced and has in the words of the author like Henry Clay and William Jennings Bryan earned a lasting place in American history
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VINE VOICEon August 9, 2008
This is the third book I have read about Wendell Willkie since I read Amity Schlaes' history of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. She describes the battle between Willkie and Roosevelt as the former tried to defend private enterprise from the New Dealers who were determined to nationalize the electric power industry. I highly recommend her book but it got me reading about Willkie. I remember my father telling me about the 1940 election. Most people who know anything about it, remember that Roosevelt won by a large majority (449 to 82) in the electoral college. What they do not realize is that it was much closer and a change of 600,000 votes could have shifted enough states to Willkie for him to win.

The Republican Party of 1940 was not quite a bad as it is shown in a recent novel, The Plot Against America, suggesting that Charles Lindberg could have been the nominee. Still, it was adamantly isolationist. Willkie was a wealthy lawyer and CEO of an electric utility who decided to run for president in spite of never having held public office. This biography describes, not only his run for the presidency, but his life and, tragically, the promise of his future had he lived. After the 1940 election, Roosevelt asked him to embark on several exhaustive and dangerous world tours to gather information. He traveled around the world meeting Stalin, the Shah of Iran, General Montgomery in Egypt and even Chaing Kai Shek. His travels and the sessions he held with these leaders resemble the travels of Herman Wouk's hero of the The Winds of War novels. I wonder now if Wouk might have used Willkie's experiences and his book, One World , as his source.

This biography is extremely well done and is part of a study of the history of the United States in The Great Depression and World War II. Willkie was rejected by the isolationists of the Republican Party in 1944 and, incredibly, Roosevelt even considered asking him to run with him as his Vice-Presidential nominee. Willkie declined and, as it happened, he died before the election. Had Willkie lived, there is no limit to what might have followed. Tragically, Willkie died before the 1944 election so the might-have-beens are idle to speculate about. If you are a student of American history and want to know more about the Depression and the Second World War, this book is almost indispensable. Willkie is almost unknown today but was a major figure and could have been a great president.
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on June 13, 2007
This was simply one of the finest political biographies I have ever read. 'Dark Horse' stands out for two reasons: 1) it has a fast-paced and lucid narrative that reads almost like a novel and 2) it brings Willkie and his times to vivid life. It is rare for a political biography to be fully engaging throughout. However, 'Dark Horse' is one of those rare biographies.

This book is truly a tour de force of political biography. And, it a fitting testament to a true American hero who awakened a nation to the dangers of Hitler at one of history's most perilous hours.

Highly recommended for all.
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on October 17, 2014
We all learn in school that the New Deal got us out of the Depression and that FDR was at the forefront of all efforts to support the United Kingdom amid the Nazi onslaught of 1939-1941. Well, not really. Willkie was, and Willkie gave FDR the pushes that were required to induce FDR to overcome his political cautions and ultimately do the right things. The more recent books The Forgotten Man and Those Angry Days document these facts. Willkie, however, remains something of an enigma today. Unfortunately, he remains so even after one concludes this interesting biography. Clearly, neither the black-and-white photos of the man nor the words-in-print quotations reveal the extent of his character nor the depth of his charisma that surely was sufficient to catapult him--a man who obviously deep-down a mainstream Democrat but deeply frustrated with the FDR leftists of the time--into the thick of the Republican presidential race of 1940 and to the top of the GOP ticket that year. Willkie's poor campaign judgment suggests that he might not have ranked among the best of presidents if he had been elected. Furthermore, Willkie possessed human character flaws that were less than admirable. Nevertheless, by standing up to FDR's socialism in the 1930s and then helping to lead the nation out of its isolationist stupor, Willkie undeniably was the political hero the nation required at that time. Willkie's willingness to assist FDR as a roving ambassador after the war began in spite of his obvious lack of respect for FDR is indicative of the deep patriotism that Willkie possessed. Parallels of that time and today are imperfect: The parties' stances in many ways are switched, for instance, and the foreign extremists are in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, reading this biography makes one long for a Willkie to emerge today and help point the way toward confronting those extremists boldly and directly rather than pretending they does not exist and shirking our responsibilities to ourselves and to our other fellow men and women around the world.
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Many years ago, I became fascinated with Wendell Willkie (1892 -- 1944) by reading "They Also Ran" They Also Ran, Irving Stone's famous account of defeated presidential candidates. Willkie's story inspired me greatly, and I read a substantial amount about him when I was too young to understand. Then, after many years and much change in me in between, I read David Levering Lewis' perceptive account of Willkie in an essay included in a study of various American leaders edited by Walter Isaacson, "Profiles in Leadership" Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness. Lewis' essay made me want to revist Willkie again. I found Steve Neal's biography, "Dark Horse", published in 1984 and now unhappily out of print. Neal (1949 -- 2004) was a person of my own generation. He was a political writer and columnist for the Chicago Tribune before his unfortunate death. I was happy to learn something of Neal as well as of Willkie in this moving biography.

Willkie was indeed the quintessential "Dark Horse" presidential candidate. Although he had never held political office and had been a registered Democrat until mid-1939, Willkie captured the 1940 Republican nomination. He mounted an aggressive campaign (in which he toured the United States in a rail car and yelled himself hoarse) against Roosevelt, who was running for an unprecedented third term, and did relatively well in terms of popular vote even though he lost decisively in the electoral college. Willkie ran as a liberal Republican against the Republican Old Guard which in 1940 was strongly isolationist. Although a political amateur, Willkie had powerful backers. His nomination owed a great deal to his support in the news media. In addition, at the time of the Republican convention, France had fallen and many voters were looking for an internationalist approach.

Neal's book discusses Willkie's astonishing rise to the Republican nomination. Born in Elwood, Indiana, Willkie had become a successful Wall Street lawyer and the president of Commonwealth and Southern Utility Company. In this capacity, Willkie opposed the New Deal and the Tennessee Valley Authority and came to public attention. Willkie opposed the New Deal vigorously while securing the presidential nomination on the basis of his internationalism. During the pressures of the 1940 campaign, he backed away temporarily and reluctantly from this latter commitment.

Neal offers a strong portrayal of Willkie as a presidential candidate. But perhaps Willkie made an even stronger impact on the United States during the final four years of his life following his 1940 defeat. Willkie became famous for his development of the concept of the "Loyal Opposition", a trait he exemplified for the remainder of his life. He helped unite the country by his support of England, the lend-lease program, and the Selective Service Act. In 1942, President Roosevelt, who admired Willkie, named his former opponent a personal envoy and sent him on a world-wide tour which included England, Russia, and China. Following his mission, Willkie wrote his famous best-selling book, "One World", One World which summarized his faith in internationalism and his hope for lasting peace. Willkie returned to the practice of law where he won a famous civil rights case involving a member of the communist party, Schneiderman v. United States, and defended the movie industry before Congress against charges that the industry was pro-communist. Willkie also spoke and wrote eloquently and repeatedly in support of full civil rights for African Americans. His liberal positions antagonized the traditional Republican political base and its political leadership. After a crushing defeat in the presidential primary in Wisconsin, Willkie withdrew from the 1944 campaign, and he died shortly thereafter.

Although he has become an obscure figure, Willkie deserves to be remembered for his courage, vision, and ideals. He may well have made an excellent president. But his service in the cause of civil rights and his attempt to bring a sense of unity to American foreign policy were lasting contributions. For a time, he modified the basic ideological conservatism of the Republican party. Late in his life, he and Roosevelt may have attempted a realignment of the American party system on liberal-conservative lines. Overall, Willkie represents a rare example of a person in public life who, with some wavering in the 1940 campaign, stayed true to his convictions and tended to act in a spirit of unity and patriotism rather than narrow partisanship.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to revisit the life of a person who inspired me when I was young but who I hadn't thought much about for a long time. The qualities that I saw dimly in Willkie when I first read about him became clearer with the passage of age. I learned from Willkie again through Steve Neal's fine book. I think that there is still much that Americans may learn from Wendell Willkie.

Robin Friedman
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on April 27, 2010
I also read "The Forgotten Man," which I believe was slanted although well written. It also got me interested in Wendell Willkie. I bought this book used with a broken spine for $29. It was worth every penny. I'm not sure he would have been a good president, but he was a great statesman.

The above reviews are excellent. I agree with most of what they say. My favorite chapter was "The Good Fight." Wendell was a great humanitarian. He fought for what he believed in and never wavered. If he had lived, he'd have given McCarthy a good fight, I think. My favorite part of this chapter is where he discovered the resort where he was staying didn't not allow Jews. He informed the management that unless they changed the policy he was leaving. They changed the policy.

This book is very well written, concise, well-documented, and fast paced. I believe we need this biography at this time in our country's history and hope the publishers see fit to bring it out again.
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on May 1, 2010
This is an excellent political biography of one of the most interesting (if largely forgotten) political figures in the USA in the 20th Century. Wendell Wilkie (1891-1944) was a former teacher, ex-Democrat, and non-politician who experienced a meteoric rise to capture the Republican nomination for President in 1940. Readers learn of Wilkie's early career as a corporate lawyer, and later, President of powerful utility companies - from his combating what he felt were the excesses of FDR's Tennessee Valley Authority. Wilkie's capture of the 1940 GOP nomination should be the subject of books and films - backed by Henry Luce (Time Magazine) and other top national publishers, he triumphed over better-known figures like Senators Arthur Vandenberg, Robert Taft, and future New York Governor Tom Dewey. As candidate Wilkie was progressive-minded, and a secret admirer of his opponent (President Franklin D. Roosevelt), who in turn secretly admired his challenger. The author shows that Wilkie campaigned against both a third term for the President and New Deal corruption (but not against the New Deal), although like FDR he favored military preparedness and aiding a beleaguered Britain then standing alone against Nazi Germany. Not long after his defeat by a respectable 55-45% margin, Wilkie spoke in favor of Lend-Lease to Britain, and was tapped by FDR to make fact-finding missions about the war. Wilkie later wrote a progressive book (One World), and he spoke out in favor of civil rights at home and against imperialism and colonialism abroad - positions that didn't always endear him to the public. Wilkie finished dead last in the GOP primary in Wisconsin in 1944, and died of heart disease a few months later at age 52.

Author Steve Neal was a capable political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times before he passed in 2004. He provides nicely-readable prose, and wrote another solid political book about FDR's nomination in 1932 (Happy Days are Here Again).
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on July 23, 2014
A pretty much straight-forward bio of a man who exploded onto the political scene in 1940 and then, almost as quickly, faded away.
Not as in-depth as most current political bios but a decently written, informative book.
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on July 31, 2014
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on December 24, 2014
Really found it little different than Life magazine articles of the time.
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