The story of a dynamic political outsider who mounted a formidable challenge to Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency.
In 1940, Roosevelt was deciding whether to run for a third term, a war in Europe was raging, inflaming debate about whether the U.S. should join, and the Republican Party was looking desperately for a candidate who could take back the presidency. The man they chose was Indiana-born Wendell Willkie (1892-1944), a wealthy businessman with no political experience but considerable charm and who only recently had changed party affiliation. “He’ll go down as the darkest horse in the stable for 1940,” said one political commentator. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Lewis (Emeritus, History/New York Univ.; W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography, 2009, etc.), who was awarded the National Humanities Medal, draws on abundant archival and published material to create a spirited portrait of the charismatic, outspoken Willkie, who took the political spotlight from 1940 until his death four years later. Time magazine founder Henry Luce called Willkie “a force of nature”; decades later, historian David Halberstam characterized him as “the rarest of things in those days, a Republican with sex appeal.” Willkie was forthright in his criticism of FDR, who Willkie claimed curtailed the Bill of Rights, fomented class conflict, undermined business (as president of a major utility company, Willkie was a fierce opponent of the Tennessee Valley Authority and other New Deal programs), and was itching to involve America in another war. Willkie felt no party loyalty but, Lewis asserts, embraced a “creed of liberalism” that “opposed equally unregulated wealth and unlimited government power.” He drew exuberant crowds as he campaigned across the country, and polls showed the election too close to call. Willkie lost to FDR but only by 5 million votes. Post-election, Willkie and FDR became close allies, and after he returned from a fact-finding trip to Europe at FDR’s request, Willkie became a strong interventionist. Lewis recounts Willkie’s prescient views of the postwar world as well as his staunch civil rights advocacy.
A thoroughly researched biography of a remarkable figure.