In late June 1940, just days after
France had fallen to Nazi Germany, delegates to
the Republican Party’s national convention gathered in . They had before them two strong
possible candidates to challenge incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who
was expected to seek an unprecedented third term in office. Both Robert A.Taft, a U.S. senator from and grandson of
William Howard Taft, and Thomas E. Dewey, famed for his exploits as New York’s
district attorney, had names recognizable to most Republicans.
There was, however, a third candidate for the presidential nomination, a newcomer to politics who had begun to attract widespread attention from the media and young people who had never before been part of the political process—Wendell Willkie of Indiana.
Willkie, a lawyer and utilities executive who had been a Democrat only a year before, had been described by best-selling author Booth Tarkington as “a man wholly natural in manner . . . a good, sturdy, able, plain Hoosier . . . a man as American as the courthouse yard in the square of an Indiana county seat.”
These attractive qualities, however, failed to attract Old Guard Republicans, who were suspicious of Willkie’s liberal views, including his support for aid to
in its war with .
While walking through the lobby of his Philadelphia
hotel, Willkie ran into James E. Watson, a conservative U.S. senator from . When Watson refused Willkie’s
request for support for the nomination, citing his former ties to the
Democratic Party, Willkie noted Watson was a Methodist and asked if he believed
in conversion. “Yes Wendell,” Watson replied, “if the town whore truly repented
and wanted to join my church, I’d welcome her. I would greet her personally and
lead her up the aisle to the front pew, but I’d be damned if I’d ask her to
lead the choir the first night.”
There were, however, powerful figures ready to offer Willkie their support, including publishing giant Henry L. Luce and fellow businessmen. In an unprecedented move, the New York Herald Tribune ran an editorial on its front page calling on Republicans to support Willkie and describing him as “heaven’s gift to the nation in time of crisis.” Delegates were inundated with telegrams and letters urging them to pick Willkie as the GOP standard-bearer. Kenneth F. Simpson, a leader of the Republican Party in New York, told reporters he had received more than a hundred thousand messages leading up to the convention touting Willkie’s candidacy. “I have never seen anything like it,” Simpson declared.
Willkie defied the odds and managed to take the lead in balloting at the convention. With supporters demanding “We want Willkie! We want Willkie,” delegates finally turned to the neophyte politician on the sixth ballot, giving him the GOP presidential nomination. Willkie told delegates that he and his running mate, Charles L. McNary, a conservative
U.S. senator from , would conduct “a crusading,
aggressive fighting campaign.”
Residents of , Willkie’s hometown, reacted to the news with jubilation. According to reports from the New York Herald Tribune, residents of the town “slapped each other on the back, asking whether they had ever expected such an achievement for ‘Wendell.’ Those who could collect their wits to answer vowed they had ‘known it all along.’”
The scenes of joy that greeted reports of Willkie’s nomination paled in comparison to the reaction the native son received when he returned to Elwood on August 17 to formally accept his nomination. Throngs jammed the
Madison County community’s streets to catch a glimpse of the
new presidential candidate and to hear his speech at .
Although both Roosevelt and Willkie shared similar views when it came to foreign policy, especially the need to aid England in its desperate struggle to survive against the Nazi onslaught, the campaign was marked by some tough tactics by both parties. The Republicans had intercepted some embarrassing letters written by Henry Wallace, the sometimes eccentric and mystical Democratic vice presidential candidate. The GOP had to relent on release the letters, however, when their opponents threatened to reveal details of Willkie’s suspected affair with noted writer Irita Van Doren. Wallace went on the offensive himself, telling crowds that Willkie would be the Nazi’s preferred candidate.
Willkie attempted to sway the electorate, many of whom were unwilling to commit America to armed conflict, by warning them that if Roosevelt won, American women could expect to start preparing “wooden crosses for sons and brothers and sweethearts” killed in the fighting. For his part, tried to ignore Willkie, telling his supporters to refrain from ever mentioning his opponent by name. “Many people, hundreds of people, just cannot remember names,” noted. “If they don’t hear the opponent’s name, that is a clear gain for us. They have heard my name so often and so long that it in itself is a politic asset, and you can trust them, particularly the haters, to say my name plenty of times.”
In the November election, defeated Willkie by approximately five million votes, as well as winning by a large margin in the Electoral College, 449 to 82. Still, Willkie had run impressively in the farm states of the and had polled more than six million more votes than had the GOP’s 1936 candidate for president, Alfred M. Landon. Willkie, who died on October 8, 1944, had earned the respect of his opponent, Roosevelt. “You know,” told a friend, “Willkie would have made a good Democrat. Too bad we lost him.”