• U.S.

CAMPAIGNS: The Story of Wendell Willkie

10 minute read

Great was the political innocence of the few citizens who decided, seven weeks ago, that they believed Wendell Willkie was the best man to be President of the U. S. No great experience in public affairs marked them: they were made up of lawyers, advertising men, the small fry of big business, the junior partners of little firms. No great idea drove them—theirs was a stubborn, headshaking, vaguely troubled conviction that, no matter if Wendell Willkie had no chance for the Republican nomination—having no delegates, no machine, no manager—they still believed he was the man to be President.

Nor were they stopped when professional politicos pointed out the obstacles: that Wendell Willkie was a businessman and, even more sinister, a utilities executive; that he had been a registered Democrat and had voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932; that his office was only a block from Wall Street; that he was unknown to most U. S. voters; that his stand against isolation had made him political poison in the Middle West and his support of the reciprocal trade treaties had ruined him forever in the Western States. In addition to alL these obstacles (beside the rumor that he had been a socialist in college) there were other arguments against the whole idea: it was too late to get a campaign organized; the war had made a Third Term virtually certain; no businessman had a chance against the glamor of Franklin Roosevelt. Nevertheless, these stubborn citizens still believed that Wendell Willkie was the best man to be President of the U. S.

One month later, there were about 200 Willkie-for-President Clubs scattered throughout the country. Great was the enthusiasm among these political innocents when a Gallup poll showed that a staggering three per cent of U. S. voters favored Willkie above all other Republicans (Dewey -67%; Vandenberg -14%; Taft -12%). By last week their enthusiasm had broken all bounds: upwards of 750 Willkie Clubs had been organized, new ones were forming at the rate of 20, 30, 40 a day; a Gallup poll now put Willkie second in popular choice, ahead of Taft and Vandenberg, and still growing; at least 50,000 volunteer Willkie workers were in the field, handing out Willkie buttons, getting signatures on petitions—usually with the slightly embarrassed air of people who believe in their cause but do not want to bother anybody; over 475,000 pieces of Willkie campaign literature had been mailed from the Manhattan Volunteer Mailing Committee; Wendell Willkie had received 3,000 requests to speak.

No political commentator failed to point out that for the first time since 1920 the Republican convention was wide open. Most agreed that Candidate Dewey was likely to lose strength after the first ballot, Candidate Taft to gain. Candidate Willkie would have his chance, if his chance came at all, as these two leaders began to slip. A few there were who believed that if the convention went beyond six ballots, each dark horse in the field looked as good as well-paced leaders. Because of the slow gearing of the convention program* many a watcher felt that dark horses carried a heavy handicap. But in the maze of speculation and guesses, addition and subtraction of variables, the point that stood out was that, win or lose, the spectacular campaign of Wendell Willkie belonged with the great U. S. political stories.

Convention. But last week the preliminaries of the 22nd Republican National Convention were also under way (see p. 17). And the doings in Philadelphia were no matter of amateurs forming committees. In the North Garden of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel the 50-odd members of the Resolutions Committee met, a week early, to ponder the toughest problem faced by the Republican party in 24 years—the foreign policy plank of its platform. Lesser figures were already beginning to talk shop as they leaned over the big oval bar in the Hunt Room of the Bellevue.

Before the Hotel Walton a huge blue and white banner labeled Thomas Dewey swayed in the lazy Philadelphia air—and Candidate Dewey’s managers, claiming 433 delegates on the first ballot (other estimates: around 300), had taken 78 hotel rooms for their cohorts. On two sides of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, Candidate Gannett (48 rooms plus the Harvard Club) stretched banners bearing his picture and the terse contention that he could beat the New Deal. Winding up nine months of campaigning that had bagged him, it was generally agreed, some 275 votes on the first ballot. Candidate Taft had 102 rooms at the Warwick, the Ritz-Carlton, the Adelphia, the Bellevue.

There was no bunting for Candidate Willkie. He had a two-room suite at the Benjamin Franklin.

Speaking last week before Washington correspondents, assembled in the biggest meeting in National Press Club history, Willkie calculated that he would go into the convention with about 70 delegates, be nominated on the sixth ballot. The man who was to nominate him was progressive Representative Charles Halleck of Indiana, no amateur; seconding the nomination would be New York’s Representative Bruce Barton.

What made people say that Willkie ought to be President was not that he was more publicly articulate than any other big businessman in the U. S.Nor was it that, by all the standards of a happier period, he lived up to the popular U. S. concept of success—a big (6 ft. 1), sprawling, good-natured, argument-loving individual who was born in a small town, married a small-town girl, raised a son, made good as a lawyer in Akron, Ohio, and moved on to Manhattan to become president, at $75,000 a year, of Commonwealth & Southern. And it was not just the other Willkie attributes—a forthright, independent air that was never explosive, an intangible, Indiana, shaggy quality. His carefully cut hair fell over his eyes when he began to argue, his well-tailored suit bunched around his shoulder when he gestured (a short, clipped, open-handed chop with both hands when making a speech, with one when arguing) and his bulk began to move around, with one leg over the arm of a chair, an arm over the back, as if the chair itself had become too small when he began to talk.

People who thought about Willkie for President recalled that he turned Congressional investigations of TVA into sounding boards for well-phrased defenses of business against New Deal theoreticians; that he held his own with Intellectuals John Kieran and Franklin P. Adams on radio’s Information Please, that he was imaginative enough to contemplate leaving business to write a series of novels about the Civil War; that he was progressive enough to insist that many a New Deal reform was here to stay.

One note that he sounded was his denial that the New Deal was liberal. Said he: a liberal is a man who believes in freedom for himself and other people. Economic freedom can mean very little to a man who is starving. “If free economic enterprise is unable to provide jobs and products for this country, then obviously some other system should be tried. . . . It is on this point that the liberal and the reactionary really find their issue: The liberal believes that the purpose of Government is to make men free and, thus having freedom, men will be able to build up a productive and prosperous society. The reactionary may desire, with equal sincerity, a prosperous society, but he believes it can be achieved only by the concentration of political or economic power.” By this standard, Communists no less than Fascists are reactionary; New Dealers (“who are not Communists but who nevertheless believe in a great increase in government power”) were able only by intellectual sleight-of-hand to call this reactionary doctrine liberal.

Preaching this doctrine in an occasional speech, an occasional magazine article, many a private talk, Willkie called it “spreading my ideas.” Response of sympathetic listeners was about the same: each admitted that he would vote for Willkie, all right, utility magnate or not, but that “the people” would never do it. When he began to take his candidacy seriously, Willkie visualized a dark-horse campaign in the convention itself, in case it deadlocked — a long chance, but one that involved little trouble and that might work.

The rush of volunteers and the determination of Willkie Club founders ended that plan, sent Wendell Willkie pounding around the U. S., making speeches, meeting the delegates from 25 States. In St. Louis he praised Winston Churchill for making the people no promises when he took office: “It is a tragedy that England had to wait to hear those words until the invader was at her door and her sons were being slaughtered. . . . The curse of democracy today, in the U. S. as well as in Europe, is that everyone has been trying to please the public. Almost nobody ever gets up and says what he thinks. . . . We must not promise jobs unless we turn industry loose to make jobs. We must not express sympathy for the unemployed and then tax profits so outrageously that money will not flow into new industries to make new jobs. We must not say that we have a good army, when the statistics prove otherwise. . . .” In Boston: “It may be that for ten years we have made no progress. . . . We have been divided by class conflicts and weakened by a sense of defeat. But let no one — especially no dictator abroad — be misled into thinking that we are not able to rouse from this lethargy and become strong.”

Trend. Says Wendell Willkie of his boom: “I would like to think it means I’m a hell of a fellow . . . but I think it means … I represent a trend, or am ahead of a trend.” Groping to define that trend last week, commentators called it a sign of impatience with politicians, an end to popular suspicion of businessmen as such, a recognition of the need for industrial leadership in a crisis. Deepest was the realization that the Republican convention would meet in the hour of Hitler’s greatest triumph and democracy’s greatest defeat. Wrote Columnist Ray Clapper: “Democracy has been a failure in Europe. It has been blind, slow, inefficient, unable to understand its interests and to protect them. . . . The idea of popular sovereignty is down flat on its back. The tribal king is on the throne again. . . . Republicans have just one issue in this campaign. It is whether Mr. Roosevelt or a Republican could do a faster, better job of obtaining the industrial production for defense. . . . They must look ahead and offer a man who can make the country believe he would do a better job. … On that point Mr. Willkie is the only man the Republicans have who stands a chance of making an effective case.”

* Although Chairman John Hamilton bangs his gavel for order at 11 a.m. June 24, and Keynoter Governor Stassen begins at 10 that night, next night ex-President Hoover says his say, third day is scheduled for the platform. Thus balloting will probably not begin until Thursday, June 27—which means the loss of a full work-week for delegates, who supposedly pay their own expenses during the Convention.

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