For Americans who even know the name, Wendell Willkie is the answer to a trivia question — the third of four Republicans who lost presidential elections to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The election of 1940, when recalled at all, invokes the norm-shattering third term Roosevelt won. Willkie hardly merits a mention.
Yet to ignore that election and the man who lost it is to miss a vision of American politics that might have been. So argues David Levering Lewis, a history professor emeritus at New York University and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, in “The Improbable Wendell Willkie.” With meticulous attention to detail, Lewis recounts the life story of an intriguing character: a longtime Democrat who retained his Midwestern affect as he scaled the heights of corporate and political power — thus mocked by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes as a “simple, barefoot Wall Street lawyer.”
Those who long for a Republican Party committed to international engagement, civil and human rights, and a reasonable debate about the role of government in economic life will find much to cheer in Lewis’s portrait. Willkie was an anti-racist candidate who cultivated support from African American voters and, in 1942, persuaded the Republican National Committee to support racial integration — years before most national politicians. Willkie the policy pragmatist backed a regulated market economy, collective bargaining rights and Social Security — “virtually a point-for-point endorsement of the New Deal,” his conservative critics fumed. And most important, Willkie the internationalist bucked his party’s isolationists in the lead-up to World War II, cementing American support for besieged Britain.
Deeply researched and engagingly paced, the book weaves Willkie’s life into the fabric of U.S. history.