Meet the New Candidate, Same as the Old Candidate - The Wendell Willkie Story (3/14/16)
IIt now appears that there is a strong possibility, perhaps a likelihood, that the Republican Presidential candidate will be an eccentric big businessman, with no experience in government office and only a nominal member of the GOP, who had expressed no particular allegiance to the party or its principles in the recent past. Surely, the nomination of this man by the Republicans as their candidate for the nation's highest office would be a completely unprecedented development?
Not at all. The GOP did exactly that once before, although it was three quarters of a century ago. In 1940, the party chose as its standard bearer, corporate lawyer, CEO and recent former activist Democratic party memberWendell Willkie.
Beginning with the advent of the Great Depression in 1929 and continuing with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's landslide victory in the 1932 election over incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover, the GOP was decimated over the next eight years. FDR was to win an even greater victory over Republican nominee Governor Alf Landon in 1936 than he had four years earlier with his opponent carrying only the two states of Maine and Vermont. In Congress, the Republican went from 56 Senate seats in 1931 to only 17 in 1937 and from having 267 members of the House of Representatives in 1931 to only 89 six years later. In each succeeding election from 1930 through 1936, the number of Republicans in Congress went down. This despite the fact that the vaunted programs of the New Deal had seemed to do little to bring down the massive unemployment rate. This had only fallen from a high of more than 20% when Roosevelt took office in 1933 to a low of only 17% in 1936. In the end, only the later US entry into World War Two and the mobilization of men for the armed services and industry caused the unemployment rate to finally fall to what it had been in previous Republican administrations.
When unemployment rose again in 1938, the electorate was finally fed up and in the mid-term election that year increased the number of Republicans for the first time in more than a decade, adding six Senators to the GOP total in the upper chamber and 80 new House members. This still left the Republicans far short of a majority in either house, but with the support of many Southern Democrats, they formed a conservative coalition that effectively brought an end to the continued expansion of the New Deal. The Grand Old Party's member looked forward to reclaiming the White House in the 1940 election.
The Republicans thought they had one solid advantage over FDR over his decision to run for an unprecedented third term as President. As a political button of the time put it, "Washington wouldn't, Grant couldn't, Roosevelt shouldn't.") Right up to the time of the 1940 Democratic convention, FDR remained publicly coy about whether he would try to serve for twelve years, but his intention was an open secret and no other serious Democratic candidate presented himself as an alternative. The GOP hoped (in the end in vain) that there would be public revulsion over the President's decision to make the office a permanent position.
But the GOP had a problem of its own, an extremely thin bench of plausible candidates for the Presidency. At the beginning of 1940, there seemed to be only three men with the stature to gain the nomination. Two Senators, Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Robert Taft of Ohio and the District Attorney of the borough of Manhattan in New York City, Thomas E. Dewey. Of the three men, only Vandenberg had been first elected to public office earlier than 1937, three years before the 1940 presidential campaign began. In fact, Dewey's main qualification for the nomination was that he had almost defeated the incumbent Democratic governor of New York in 1938.
Up to this time, Wendell Willkie's political activism had been entirely in the Democratic party. He came from a family of Democrat lawyers in Indiana and 1896 Democratic Presidential William Jennings Bryan had once spent the night in the family home when he was a boy. Willkie had been a delegate to both the 1924 and 1932 Democratic party conventions. Although he had not voted for Roosevelt at the 1932 convention, he voted for him in the general election and had contributed to his campaign.
Not only did Willkie's political inclinations tilt him toward the Democratic party, they were also left of center. At college, he had read Marx and petitioned Indiana University to add a course on socialism to the curriculum. At the 1924 Democratic convention, he backed an unsuccessful plank for the US to join the League of Nations.
What eventually drove Willkie to the Republican party (but not conservatism) were his experience as a corporate lawyer for and later President of Commonwealth and Southern Corporation. Willkie led the fight against the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the government's eventual successful efforts to force the C&SC to sell the government its properties in the Tennessee Valley. While Willkie was unable to prevent the government's appropriation of the corporation's properties, he did negotiate a considerably higher price than was originally offered by the Feds and gained considerable fame as a result, including a Time magazine cover in July, 1939.
Willkie voted for Alf Landon for President in 1936 and like the Literary Digest, was surprised at his loss. But he did not get around to changing his party registration to Republican until 1939. As Ronald Reagan was later to say of his own party switch, Willkie contended that he had not left the Democrats, they had left him by becoming an anti-business party.
Another issue that concerned Willkie was foreign policy. As his support of the League of Nations would indicate, he opposed the isolationists, like the three leading Republican Presidential candidates, who felt that the US should stay out of foreign affairs and the new war in Europe.
In early 1940, after receiving many letters urging him to run, Willkie announced that he would accept the GOP nomination if it was offered to him. That long ago, there were few Presidential primaries and most convention delegates were controlled by state party bosses. It has now been over 50 years since a party nominating convention took more than one ballot to chose its Presidential candidate, but in the 1940s it was standard procedure, unless the convention was renominating an incumbent President.
It is still unclear how Willkie ending up winning the nomination in Philadelphia in June. He had gone from a mere 3 percent in the polls of Republican voters as to their Presidential preference to 29 percent in the two months before the convention, but was still well behind Dewey, the front runner, who had declined from 67 to 47 percent. Many party members felt that the nomination should not go to a newcomer. Indiana GOP Senator James Watson had famously remarked that he didn't mind the town whore joining the church, but that she shouldn't expect to lead the choir during the first week she was there. On the first ballot, Willkie received less than a third as many delegates votes as did the District Attorney and only a little more than half those cast for Senator Taft. But on each succeeding ballot, Willkie's delegates numbers grew while those of Dewey fell. Taft's numbers grew as well, but on the fifth ballot, they fell behind Willkie's. On the sixth ballot, Senator Vandenberg threw his support to Willkie and Pennsylvania switched its vote from its favorite son Governor James to the Indianan, giving him the nomination.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt welcomed the businessman's nomination by the GOP because he felt that since both he and Willkie were internationalists in foreign policy, it would not be an issue, but the fall of France to the Nazis caused many voters to fear US involvement in the war. Both FDR and Willkie began to sound more isolationist during the fall campaign, with Willkie arguing that only he could keep America out of the war and Roosevelt famously saying that, "I have said again and again and again that your boys are not going to be sent into foreign wars."
When America cast its votes, it only took a few hours after the polls closed to determine that Roosevelt had won an unprecedented third term in office, beating Willkie by a 55-45% popular margin and gaining the electoral votes of 38 states to only 10 for Willkie. While the Republican candidate did better than had either Hoover or Landon had done, that was a low hurdle to jump, and there was no way that FDR's victory could be described as other than a landslide.
Why did Willkie lose? Conservative Republicans will claim that it was because Willkie did not aggressively attack the New Deal policies and their failure to get the country out of the Depression and should have taken an isolationist position from the beginning. Both of which of course would have been against Willkie's personal inclinations. Me-Too Republicans argued that Willkie should have proposed a bigger, better New Deal. My own guess is that with Europe and Asia in bloody turmoil, most voters simply took Abe Lincoln's advice not to change horses in mid-stream.
After the election, Willkie continued to serve as a public figure, travelling abroad, calling for an internationalist foreign policy and supporting the war effort. He wrote a book called One World in which he described his travels and, returning to his left-wing roots, called for the establishment of a world government. He also spoke out for civil rights for the black citizens of the US, at a time when this was not popular, and after his death, the NAACP named its headquarters building after him.
Willkie also met with Roosevelt at the White House, where FDR reportedly asked him if he would consider being his running mate in the 1944 election and where Willkie suggested the formation of a new political party combining the left-wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Although Willkie intended to make another run for the Presidency, he did little to gain favor with the Republican party establishment, going on another world tour instead of campaigning for GOP candidates in the 1942 mid-term elections. He also met with Roosevelt at the White House, where Willkie opposed In 1944, when he ran dead last in the Wisconsin primary against now New York Governor Dewey, Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota and General Douglas MacArthur, he dropped out of the race.
Willkie had neglected his health over the years, drinking and smoking heavily and starting in July 1944, he suffered a series of heart attacks, culminating with his death after the last one on October 8th.
There are a few reasonable comparisons that can be made between the candidacy of Wendell Willkie in 1940 and that of Donald Trump more than three-quarters of a century later. True, it does show that it was possible for a wealthy businessman to gain a political party's nomination, even without the support of the party organization and most of its office holders, and Donald Trump is without doubt the current front runner in the GOP race.
Nor is being a political convert necessarily a fatal handicap. As Trump supporters will point out, conservative icon Ronald Reagan was once a liberal Democrat, although his party switch was made decades before he sought the Presidency. In this case, actually the better comparison might be made with Eisenhower, whose political leanings (if any) were unknown until he retired from the military and entered civilian life. In fact, before he entered the race for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination, there was a "Draft Eisenhower" movement in the Democratic party four years earlier in the 1948 presidential contest, although it was unsuccessful in toppling the incumbent Harry Truman.
On the other hand, while Willkie plainly had a coherent set of (most left-wing) political principles, (although he did not widely publicize some of the more controversial ones when seeking the White House), Trump's positions on the issues seem to change with every passing day, although this does seem to matter little to his hard-core of supporters in the Republican primaries and caucuses, which seems to have a roof and ceiling both equal to about one-third of the party members. But in a four man Presidential race, which this continues to be at the moment, one-third may be enough to ultimately win enough delegates for a majority.
One final similarity between Trump and Willkie that I might mention is that both men had, shall we say, "interesting" romantic lives. Almost his sex life was much less flamboyant than Mr. Trump's has been, although Willkie was married to the same woman, his wife, the former Edith Wilk, from the age of 26 till his death, by whom he had one son, he carried on a long-time affair in his later years with Irita Van Doren, the book review editor of the Republican newspaper, the New York Herald Tribune. Although this was common knowledge among those who knew both of them and members of the press at the time, the news media was much more discreet back then about not revealing details about the private lives of celebrities and never printed a word about it.
So if the question is can the GOP presidential nomination be won by a businessman with no governmental experience, a recent convert to the party, whose political views are largely unknown and whose private life is not above reproach, the answer is, it can and has done so. The question, should it do so again, remains to be answered.