A political convention that mattered
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 28 August 2004)

Americans and Canadians currently differ on many questions, but we agree on at least one point: Both countries have decided to drain every last drop of life from our political conventions. Party apparatchiks now design them so as to make all participants appear dead on arrival. John Kerry's convention was as humdrum as Paul Martin's and -- barring terrorism -- the Republican assembly in New York this week seems likely to be just as tedious.

But political conventions once mattered, hard as that may be to believe. Lately, in search of a less soporific political past, I've been reading three biographies of Wendell Willkie, the dark horse candidate chosen by the 1940 Republican convention to oppose Franklin Roosevelt. In the current issue of The Washington Monthly, Charles Peters rightly calls that event "The Greatest Convention."

Although Willkie lost the general election, his nomination remains a historic moment. This year we'll hear more about that convention, because Philip Roth has made it the narrative gate to his new novel, The Plot Against America, due in October.

In 1940 the Roosevelt Democrats sympathized with Britain's struggle against Hitler and tried to help. Most Republicans, however, believed the U.S. should maintain strict neutrality. When Roosevelt sent supplies to Britain, he had to fend off bitter criticism from isolationists. It seemed likely that one of them would run against him in November, putting him on the defensive and fanning anti-British feeling. He expected to face Thomas Dewey, Robert Taft, or Arthur Vandenberg.

Willkie was a lawyer, the head of a utility holding company and a right-wing Democrat who opposed New Deal economic policy. On the question of Hitler, however, he took FDR's side.

He had never run for election. But as Steve Neal makes clear in Dark Horse: A Biography of Wendell Willkie (1984), he didn't lack charm or confidence. He also had a peculiar asset, uncelebrated at the time: His mistress. While adultery usually creates trouble in politics, Willkie's love affair with Ira Van Doren turned out to be a major asset.

Willkie and his wife remained together from their wedding in 1918 till his death from a heart attack in 1944. But in 1937 he fell permanently in love with Van Doren, a journalist who edited the literary section of the New York Herald Tribune, the voice of internationalist Republicans. She seems to have made Willkie her project as well as her lover. She stimulated his intellectual interests, encouraged his internationalism and urged him to run for president. She introduced him to Republicans who were eager to fight Hitler, above all her close friends Helen Rogers Reid and Ogden Reid, publishers of the Herald Tribune.

She was in her 40s, a year older than Willkie, divorced two years earlier from a distinguished historian, Carl Van Doren. A charming woman with a soft southern accent, she was much loved by the writers who worked for her and much admired by literary New York. Willkie's wife was apparently tolerant, and so (this was long ago) were the political journalists. When Willkie held a campaign press conference at her apartment, the papers reported his words but not his relationship with the hostess.

He quietly joined the Republican Party in 1938 and let his friends talk up his candidacy. Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune, not only filled his magazines with Willkie propaganda but allowed the editor of Fortune, Russell Davenport, to serve as the campaign's chief idea man.

Hitler's agents tried to support isolationist candidates at the convention (as captured documents later demonstrated), but his victories in the spring of 1940 worked in Willkie's favour. The Germans entered Paris on June 14 and France surrendered June 22. Two days later the convention opened at Philadelphia. Many thought that circumstances had killed isolationism, but at the convention it showed a lot of life. It took six ballots to nominate Willkie.

That decision reversed Republican policy. It meant Roosevelt didn't have to muffle his support for Britain and the U.S. remained a sword hanging over Hitler's head. It was a rare case of the loser playing a decisive role in politics.

Now Philip Roth has written a counterfactual novel beginning in 1940. In his rewriting of history, the convention deadlocks and the party chooses Charles Lindbergh, anti-Semite and friend of Hitler, whose agenda definitely doesn't include helping Britain. The fact that the greatest novelist now writing in America has turned back to that convention suggests that the issues it defined still haunt American politics.

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