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A Love Letter to an Extinct Creature: The Liberal Republican

“The Improbable Wendell Willkie” offers a look at how American politics might have been.
Murray Becker/AP Photo

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.”

This biography is one part political yarn, one part love letter to an extinct creature: the liberal Republican. Willkie himself lost the White House in a blowout and died, unexpectedly at age 52, shortly before Roosevelt’s final reelection in 1944. Nonetheless, the author argues, Willkie’s embrace of internationalism and acceptance of the New Deal recalibrated the Republican Party and reshaped postwar American politics.

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.