Wendell Willkie is back in the news these days in Indiana, thanks to Mary Beth Dunnichay. She is the youngest American Olympian and the only other famous person to be claimed by Elwood Indiana, population 9,096. Dunnichay is a fifteen-year-old synchronized diver. Willkie was the Republican nominee for the 1940 presidential election who tried so hard not to be out-of-sync with the American electorate. Every Indiana newspaper article about Dunnichay, Elwoods favorite daughter, has an obligatory mention of Willkie, Elwoods favorite son. Even the good people of Elwood, however, have not been very successful in keeping Willkies memory alive. If you pass through the arched entrance to Elwood High school, you will read a slogan from his campaign: The Hope of Our Country. Elwood students today can be excused for assuming the slogan refers to public education, not to a forgotten public figure¯one whose rapid rise from nowhere resembles no other politician more than Barack Obama.
Destined, perhaps, always to be mentioned but rarely analyzed in newspaper articles, Willkies name has also come up in opinion pieces about Obamas recent trip abroad. Obama is running on the promise of global peace and unity, which is a theme that Willkie trumpeted in One World , the book he wrote after his 1940 defeat. A progressive tract way ahead of its time, more than a million copies were sold, and Willkie would have become the most important political spokesman for international cooperation if he had not died, from heart disease, in 1944 at age fifty-two.
Pundits love to play the game of political parallel lives, but the parallels between these two are truly remarkable. Willkie was a political outsider who appealed to those growing weary with the long experiment of the New Deal. He was a corporate lawyer whose political ambitions exceeded his actual political experience. He could appear to transcend partisan politics, since he became a Republican only in 1939. He was also an idealist when it came to foreign affairs and a master of rhetoric when it came to creating slogans. And though he lost the national election, he had an ability to excite large crowds and organize small groups inspired by his promise to bring fresh ideas to the Washington establishment.
He entered the race for the Republican nomination as a dark horse at a time when the Nazi menace was beginning to dim the political horizon. Willkie could be a fierce critic of interventionism. “No man has the right to use the great powers of the Presidency to lead the people, indirectly, into war, he proclaimed. Nonetheless, he kept his distance from the isolationists who thought they could control the nomination. Willkie was an internationalist, which meant that he wanted to provide the Allies with as much support as possible up to the point of being dragged into combat. He spoke up for the British at just the time when American sympathy for them was reaching its peak. The Republican Convention opened soon after France surrendered to Germany and Americans braced for a Nazi invasion of England. His supporters packed the galleries in Philadelphia, and his victory on the sixth ballot was one of the most exciting in any party convention.
Willkie entered the national election as a political novice facing an incredibly complex global situation, but for many that was the source of his appeal. The Willkie Clubs that sprung up everywhere provided the energy of his campaign. Willkie accused the Roosevelt administration of corruption and depicted FDR as power hungry for trying to win an unprecedented third term. Yet he did not run as a radical. He pledged to keep most of the New Deal in tact but to make it more efficient and fairer.
On the issue of the war in Europe, he gracefully waffled. He criticized FDR for a lack of military preparedness, but then reversed himself by accusing him of clamoring for war. He initially supported the draft but changed course when polls showed that opposition to the war could be a winning issue. He understood that Americans were nervous about their global responsibilities and anxious about Nazi expansion. He hoped that a middle ground on military involvement would demonstrate his political independence and his intellectual integrity. After the election he demonstrated just how non-partisan he was by becoming a key Roosevelt ally by defending the Lend-Lease Act and denouncing isolationism.
After the election he also became a leader in calling for the end of racism. In 1942 he became one of the most prominent white politicians to ever address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and when race riots broke out in Detroit in 1943 he criticized both parties for not doing enough to solve the Negro question.
The parallels between these two fast-track politicians, and not just on the issue of race, are obvious. Like Willkie, Obama has tried to rise above partisanship even as he has risen more quickly in his party than anyone could have expected. He has not quite sided with those isolationists who deny that we are engaged in a war against terrorism, because he understands that most Americans accept the international responsibility that comes with the privilege and prosperity of great power. Obama’s promised change almost for its own sake and his criticisms of President Bushs corruption and ambition both echo Willkies criticisms of FDR. Obama has turned his inexperience into a plus in a political season where many think the oval office has been occupied by the same person for much too long.
The most important parallel, however, is in their understanding of the basis for international order. Obama abroad has agitated for greater US-European cooperation, explaining that, The burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. He has called himself a citizen of the world, and argued that collapse of the Berlin Wall demonstrates how no challenge is too great for a world that stands as one. All of these words resonate with the internationalism Willkie advocated. With World War II still raging, he argued that its end must mean an end to the empire of nations over other nations. And he ended his book by saying that Americans face the most challenging opportunity of all history¯the chance to help create a new society in which men and women the world around can live and grow invigorated by independence and freedom.” Both men think that it is rhetoric, rather than power, that keeps international conflict in check.
Willkie never had the chance to put his idealism into practice, and who knows, his cooperation with FDR after he lost in 1940 suggests that he probably would have been more pragmatic than his words imply. Willkie is one of those great what ifs of American politics, but in the end, he was too inexperienced, too idealistic, and too untested for the American people to trust him with the White House at a time of grave international threats. Of course, whether this will be the final parallel between the two remains to be seen.
Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence: A Nation with a Mission , The Divine Voice , and Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved .