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More than an Also-Ran
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