The Unconventional Presidential Candidate

Republicans have had two terms of Democratic rule and it looks like they may have a chance to come back to the White House. The midterms were encouraging and the GOP has hopes that they have finally turned a corner. The Republicans are more unified than ever in opposition to the president’s programs and they are looking among their own for the next president and they have some good choices. However, a new Republican candidate makes waves. He was not too long ago a Democrat and is an accomplished businessman who has clashed with the current president on numerous aspects of policy. He has never held public office before. Insiders wonder how he is doing so well and the GOP establishment wants to stop him. Many suspect he isn’t really a conservative. Groups form specially to advocate for him. You might think I’m talking about Donald Trump, but I’m talking about Wendell Willkie.

Wendell Willkie cph.3a38684.jpg

Wendell Willkie (1892-1944) was a longtime Democrat, having been born into a Democratic family that had fled from Prussia after supporting the efforts at democratic revolution in 1848. He was a strong defender of Woodrow Wilson and his “New Freedom” programs, supported the League of Nations, and was also motivated by a deep-seated opposition to imperialism, which was motivated by his witnessing in the Caribbean a manager striking a rebellious worker in the shoulder with a machete (Mallon). In 1924, Willkie participated in the Democratic National Convention and pushed against the KKK as well as for support of the League of Nations. His rise to prominence began with working as an attorney for Harvey Firestone’s tire company and then later as corporate counsel for Commonwealth & Southern, a utility holding company. By 1933 he was its president, and that year he had another success: his candidate he supported for the presidency, FDR, had been sworn into office after a blowout of an election. A challenge immediately faced the business as Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, which made the government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority a competitor with C&S. Additionally, a key part of FDR’s Second New Deal was the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, which effectively destroyed holding companies through its death sentence clause. The “death sentence” clause, as explained by author Jeremiah D. Lambert (2015), “required that the utility industry must within five years voluntarily terminate utility holding companies that had no useful function and authorizing the SEC thereafter to dissolve every holding company lacking an economic reason for its existence” (48). Willkie tried to combat this development as well, but was unsuccessful. Indeed, his cause on public utilities was fatally harmed when an infamous act of astroturfing was uncovered by Senator Hugo Black (D-Ala.): utilities executives had hired PR firms to orchestrate a letter writing campaign against the “Death Sentence Clause” in which most of the names signed were forged, being grabbed out of a telephone book. Willkie’s reputation survived as he was not involved in the fraud. In 1936, for the first time in the longtime Democratic activist’s life, he voted for the Republican candidate. Willkie’s battle with the TVA came to an end on January 30, 1939 when the Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee Power Co. v. TVA that the TVA’s competition with private industry was constitutional. Willkie thus sold Commonwealth & Southern’s properties in the Tennessee Valley area to the TVA. That year, he switched affiliation to the Republican Party.

He presented the contrast between the government-oriented Roosevelt and business. His attitude towards the government’s attitude was summed up in his quote, “For several years now, we have been listening to a bedtime story, telling us that the men who hold office in Washington are, by their very positions, endowed with a special virtue” (Shlaes). In 1939, Willkie switched to the Republican Party. The following year he pursued the Republican nomination for president but didn’t participate in state primaries. The three people who actively participated in them were Thomas E. Dewey, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, and Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. However, Willkie’s strategy was a sound one for his time: his strategy was to be a dark horse candidate at the Republican National Convention. Indeed, Republicans were quite divided between the three candidates who participated in the primaries. Thomas Dewey was an early leader in polling, but Willkie and Senator Robert Taft kept rising in the polls and Willkie clubs formed to support him. He prevailed on the final ballot, and his campaign focused on limiting the New Deal and making remaining programs more cost effective. Willkie emphasized the individual over the collective and stood for free enterprise. His stance on foreign policy in truth differed little from that of FDR, in fact he was the only interventionist in the primary. but non-interventionists back him as preferable. Many of the party faithful were not so thrilled, including fellow Hoosier and former Senate Majority Leader James E. Watson, who said to Willkie’s face, “I don’t mind the church converting a whore, but I don’t like her to lead the choir the first night!” (Bernstein, 716)

On recommendation by House Minority Leader Joe Martin (R-Mass.), Willkie selected Senate Minority Leader Charles McNary of Oregon as his running mate. McNary had backed some significant portions of the New Deal that Willkie had fought, including the Tennessee Valley Authority. He was also a non-interventionist, but a moderate one. The coalition that was backing the Willkie-McNary ticket was indeed quite varied as it consisted of various sorts of detractors of FDR like those who opposed primarily based on foreign policy and those opposed primarily based on domestic, but as Thomas Mallon (2018) notes, “And yet one can’t judge this amalgamation to be any less stable than the New Deal coalition of union labor, religious minorities, African-Americans, and Southern segregationists that had twice delivered the White House to Roosevelt.” However, the coalition behind Willkie-McNary just wasn’t enough. Many in the American public were swayed by the argument that in a time of great international crisis with World War II raging in Europe, it was best to maintain a stable course with an already experienced leader in Roosevelt. On November 5, 1940, the ticket won ten states and 45% of the vote, but this was a significant step up from 1936 when the Landon-Knox ticket won two states and 36.5% of the vote.

Not long after losing the election, Willkie testified in favor of Lend-Lease. This put him on the outs with many Republicans. Indeed, Lend-Lease is an outright repudiation of the concept of neutrality and only 15% of voting House Republicans voted for it, while 37% of voting Senate Republicans voted for it. During World War II Willkie helped the Roosevelt Administration promote a new postwar global order and traveled around the globe as FDR’s personal representative. That year he was mulling a run for Governor of New York, and to this Thomas E. Dewey said upon hearing he was visiting the USSR, “I hear he is going to Russia before the Republican [state] convention, so he will be where he belongs and I hope he stays there until Christmas” (Neal, 217-230) . Although Willkie ran for the nomination in 1944, he lost the Republican primary badly to Thomas E. Dewey, as he had not put sufficient focus on helping the GOP between his defeat and the 1944 primary. The Republicans were also in truth too uncomfortable with his level of internationalism and also generally thought him too liberal. Indeed, his 1943 book One World alarmed the bulk of Republicans concerned with sovereignty. Willkie went as far as to call for a one world government to keep the peace, and also stated, “freedom means the orderly but scheduled abolition of the colonial system” (Mallon). Willkie was also an outspoken critic of the Jim Crow system and the general societal treatment of blacks and also pledged to appoint a black man to his cabinet or to the Supreme Court, developments which would not occur until the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Fatally to his chances in the primary, he also pledged to raise taxes. However, time was short for Willkie and his bad health habits were catching up to him. As his grandson Wendell L. Willkie II (2018) notes, “Willkie was a cardiologist’s worst case: He smoked three packs of Camels daily, clearly enjoyed his scotch, ate more than he should, and never exercised”. He suffered the first of several heart attacks at the end of the summer of 1944, with the final one occurring on October 8th, thus not getting to see the postwar world he had helped create. 


Bernstein, I. (1969). The turbulent years: A history of the American worker, 1933-1941. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

Lambert, J.D. (2015). The power brokers: The struggle to shape and control the electric power industry. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Mallon, T. (2018, September 10). Can the G.O.P. Ever Reclaim Wendell Willkie’s Legacy? The New Yorker.

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Neal, S. (1984). Dark horse: A biography of Wendell Willkie. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Republican Party Platform of 1940. The American Presidency Project.

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Shales, A. (2009, May 25). The Man Who Talked Back. Forbes.

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Willkie, W.L. (2018, October 6). My Grandfather Was a Republican Nominee Who Put Country First. The Atlantic.

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