George F. Will: When party establishments mattered

George F. Will

George F. Will

WASHINGTON — 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’ 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 — Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg 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.

One of the few politicians among Willkie’s early backers was Sam Pryor, Republican national committeeman, whom the candidate met at the Greenwich Country Club, naturally. Willkie’s top adviser was Russell Davenport, managing editor of Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine, which together with Time and Life made Luce, an ardent interventionist, a mass media power unlike anyone before or since. The April issue of Fortune was almost entirely devoted to praise of Willkie. Look magazine, second only to Life in importance, chimed in, as did Reader’s Digest, which had the nation’s largest magazine circulation.

On April 9, Dewey won a second of the few primaries — and Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark, with Belgium, Holland and France soon to follow. Willkie said he would vote for FDR over a Republican opposed to aiding Britain and France.

Willkie, “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” cultivated an Indiana aura, but had become a Manhattan fixture, and by 1937 his criticism of the New Deal had Fortune applauding his “presidential stature,” and the letters column of the New York Herald Tribune, the Republican establishment’s house organ, concurred. In May, The Atlantic Monthly carried a Willkie essay, in June it was the Saturday Evening Post’s turn. In July, Time featured a celebratory cover story on him.

Madison Avenue titans of advertising — Bruce Barton of BBDO and John Young of Young and Rubicam — joined the effort. Root would have a meeting for Willkie, “under the clock at the Biltmore,” followed by another at the University Club or Century Club. Between May 8 and June 21, Willkie’s support rose from 3 percent to 29 percent.

Willkie also was lucky: In May, the Taft man in charge of tickets had a stroke and was replaced by a Willkie man who would pack the gallery with raucous Willkie supporters, including a Yale law student named Gerald Ford. The Herald Tribune endorsed Willkie in its first front-page editorial and tens of thousands of pro-Willkie telegrams inundated delegates in one day. Delegates heard from their hometown bankers, who had heard pro-Willkie instructions from New York bankers. He won on the sixth ballot.

Willkie’s nomination neutralized much Republican opposition to FDR’s war preparations and was crucial to the narrow congressional approval of conscription. Willkie lost the election, but the coming war would be won. Time was, party establishments had their uses.

Email: georgewill@washpost.com

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