It is the stuff of political legend: facing a bevy of prominent candidates within the Republican Party, a straight-talking businessman comes out of nowhere to wrest the GOP nomination away from the party’s customary leadership. Energizing volunteers from across the country, the former executive capitalizes on fear about the international situation to achieve a stunning, dark-horse victory unique to American politics. At the Republican National Convention, the galleries rocked with the name of this suddenly charismatic figure. Is this the scenario for Donald Trump? It worked for his predecessor, Wendell Willkie from Elwood, Indiana, a man now largely forgotten except to specialists in political lore.
1940 began as President Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed unlikely to run for a third term, an assumption that apparently offered an opportunity for the resurgent Republicans. The declared GOP candidates included Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, and the thirty-seven-year old district attorney of New York City, Thomas E. Dewey. Because of Dewey’s youth, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes quipped that he had thrown his diaper into the ring. None of the three front-runners departed from the isolationist orthodoxy that dominated their party in the last months of what was known as the “phony war” in Europe, where neither the Allies nor Nazi Germany had yet taken the initiative. Building on their victories in the 1938 elections, the Republicans hoped to return to national power and keep the United States out of the European conflict.
Then matters changed. Hitler invaded the Low Countries and then defeated France with stunning suddenness beginning in May 1940. To Eastern Republicans, mindful of the Nazi threat, the prospect of Taft, Dewey, or Vandenberg seemed dismaying. They wanted an alternative choice who would dismantle the New Deal, but also defend the nation against Germany. Their eye soon fell on a former executive of a public utility, Commonwealth and Southern Corporation. Its former president Wendell Willkie was forty-eight and, up until then, a conservative Democrat. He had clashed with Roosevelt over the Tennessee Valley Authority and he spoke out in defense of large corporations. He appealed to business executives and GOP opinion makers along the East Coast.
Soon, thoughts within the party turned to the burly, rumpled Willkie whose ad lib speeches excited crowds. Here was a candidate for eastern Republicans who was an opponent of parts, but not all of the New Deal. On foreign policy, Willkie said, “it makes a great deal of difference to us—politically, economically, and emotionally—what kind of world exists beyond our shores.” Suddenly, Willkie seemed more exciting to Republicans than the blandness of Taft and the evasions of Dewey.
Seventy-five years ago, it was still possible for a candidate such as Willkie to seize the nomination. There were fewer primaries than today and the party structure was more fluid. Because there was no clear front-runner, Willkie divided and conquered. “Willkie for President” clubs sprang up across the nation. Every down-tick in the international news made Willkie more appealing. By the time the Republicans met in Philadelphia, the Willkie bandwagon was rolling. The crowds in the galleries chanted “We want Willkie,” and the delegates yielded to what seemed an irresistible tide.
Alas, Willkie’s campaign peaked the day he was nominated. In his acceptance speech he referred to “you Republicans.” A wag likened the disorganized Willkie campaign to “a whorehouse on Saturday night when the madam is out and all the girls are running around dropping nickels in juke boxes.” By October, with the polls showing him behind the president, Willkie played the isolationist card. “Our boys shall stay out of Europe.” Roosevelt countered with famous assurances that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” When he heard Roosevelt’s words, Willkie said, “That hypocritical son of a bitch! This is going to beat me.”
And so it did. Roosevelt beat Willkie by five million votes and 449 to 82 in the Electoral College. The businessman candidate had not won. Conservatives argued that by picking a moderate choice, the party had sold out its heritage for nothing. Willkie was no Donald Trump; he had ideas and the ability to engage tough issues. Could any Republican have won in 1940 against a still healthy FDR? Probably not, but Willkie gave it his best shot. Perhaps there is room in the crowded Republican field for another charismatic newcomer from the world of business who can, for a season, capture lightning in a bottle as Wendell Willkie once did.
Image Credit: “Wendell Willkie’s notification ceremony, Aug. 17, 1940” by Charles J. Bell. Public Domain via Library of Congress.