Wendell Willkie’s 1940 nomination: When party establishments mattered

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tags: election 2016, Wendell Willkie



George Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs.

Months before the 1940 Republican convention nominated Wendell Willkie, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt’s waspish daughter, said that Willkie’s support sprang “from the grass roots of a thousand country clubs.” There actually was a Republican establishment in 1940, when GOP elites created a nominee ex nihilo. 

According to Charles Peters’s book “Five Days in Philadelphia,” three months before the convention, Willkie registered zero percent in polls measuring public sentiment about potential Republican nominees. This was not surprising: He was a businessman — president of Commonwealth & Southern Corp., the nation’s largest electric utility holding company — who had given substantial support to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Willkie had never sought public office and had not registered as a Republican until late 1939 or early 1940. 

And he was not an isolationist regarding European events. Eighty percent of Americans were more or less isolationist, as were the three strongest Republican candidates — Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey, just 38 but favored by 60 percent in early 1940 polls. Herbert Hoover hoped a deadlocked convention would turn to him.

The Republicans’ “Eastern establishment,” however, was interventionist to the extent of favoring aid to Britain. The adjective “Eastern” was superfluous: Two-thirds of Americans lived east of the Mississippi (California’s population was under 7 million) and the South was solidly Democratic. 

The Republican establishment had power and the will to exercise it. As the convention drew near, “Willkie Clubs” suddenly sprouted like dandelions, but not spontaneously. Their growth was fertilized by Oren Root, a lawyer with the Manhattan law firm of Davis, Polk, Wardwell, Gardner & Reed, whose clients included the J.P. Morgan banking empire. Root began seeking support for Willkie with a mailing to Princeton’s class of 1924 and Yale’s class of 1925. Another close Willkie adviser was Thomas Lamont, chairman of the board of J.P. Morgan & Co. Root’s uncle Elihu had been a U.S. senator and Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of war. By opposing his friend TR’s bid to defeat President William Howard Taft for the 1912 Republican nomination, Elihu Root helped to rescue the country from having both parties devoted to progressivism. ...




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