DARK HORSE: A Biography of Wendell Willkie by Steve Neal

DARK HORSE: A Biography of Wendell Willkie

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A thin, flat, ineffectual biography of the upstart 1940 Republican presidential candidate and wartime champion of One WorM. In the introduction, Chicago Tribune White House correspondent Neal (Tom McCall, The Eisenhowers) strikes all the customary notes: Willkie's support for aid to the Allies, contra Republican isolationism; his ""fresh and appealing"" personality, his ""tousled"" hair and rumpled clothes and ""Hoosier twang,"" his energy and drive; the acidulous anti-Willkie comments (""barefoot boy from Wall Street,""etc.); his post-defeat trajectory--the foreign missions, support for civil rights, political collapse. But the single interpretive peg in the text is that, civil rights apart, Willkie was a trimmer: ""Despite his strong principles, Willkie's decision to join a fraternity provided an early indication that he was willing to bend them when there were personal considerations."" (His girl-friend insisted.) ""In later years, Willkie was eulogized as the political rarity who would rather be right than be president, yet when confronted with a test of principle in the fall of 1940, he buckled to expediency""--and, behind in the campaign, denounced Roosevelt as a warmonger. This turnabout Willkie later referred to, famously, as ""campaign rhetoric"": Neal notes that Republicans were incensed, but makes no further comment. He also leaves the impression--perhaps deliberately, perhaps for want of direction--that Willkie was indeed a media and PR phenomenon: Luce, Cowles (Look), and Reid (N.Y. Herald Tribune) support catapulted him into national prominence; packing the galleries with ""We want Willkie!""--ites, and loosing a flood of telegrams, clinched the nomination. (The heating-up war was, or wasn't, crucial.) The pre-1940 and post-1940 sections are weak for other, opposite reasons. Neal makes no attempt to trace the transformation of Willkie, the successful Akron lawyer (1919-29) and prominent, out-of-step Democrat into the functionary and chief of Commonwealth & Southern, the nation's largest utility holding company (1929-40) and FDR-critic-cum-internationalist; the one thing about which we hear at some length (""A Love in Shadow"") is his attachment to Herald Tribune book editor Irita Van Doren (who probably was, however, a considerable influence). Post-defeat, the mass of undifferentiated detail tends to blur the outlines--and, as regards Willkie's purported blind passion for Madame Chiang, to detract from his accomplishments. In particular, Neal doesn't see the power, in 1943, of Willkie's One World vision. There are some new political scraps (many, however, from aggrieved or otherwise unfriendly sources); Neal incorporates considerable material published since the last Willkie bio; but in contrast with Richard Norton Smith's recent life of Dewey, which adds substance and interest to a slight, unpopular figure, this makes its subject smaller than life.

Pub Date: Jan. 13th, 1983
Publisher: Doubleday