August 3, 2008
Barack, meet WendellBy Mark Lajoie
We've seen this before: a young, attractive, and politically inexperienced candidate comes out of nowhere to claim a presidential nomination. Is history repeating itself?
In 1940, one of the most unlikely political ascensions in history occurred when Wendell Willkie came out of nowhere to claim the Republican nomination and challenge Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Presidency. There are major contextual and personal differences, to be sure. But the personality, experience and choices of Willkie seem eerily reminiscent of Obama to me. Others have seen this before me, such as Alexander Heffner of TIME magazine.
Willkie's experience consisted of being a soldier, corporate lawyer and company president of an electric utility company. He served as a delegate to the Democratic convention and supported FDR and the New Deal. However, when Roosevelt intruded into utilities matters by instituting the Tennessee Valley Authority, and when FDR began to lean toward war, the isolationist Willkie re-acted forcefully. As in recent years, an antiwar movement can mobilize passionate support.
He became a liberal Republican and began to campaign nationally. At 48, just two years older than Obama today, he broke upon the national consciousness with an ‘electrifying' appearance on the "Town Hall" radio program. In 1940, Wilkie stumped furiously around the country and caught fire in the popular imagination. In light of the apocalyptic threat posed by the Nazi threat to the Continent, the gist of his appeal was the isolationist cant, "we must avoid war". "Willkie clubs" began to spring up everywhere. Millions signed petitions for him. It was a true phenomenon.
At the Republican convention, Willkie came out of nowhere, in a multiple-ballot thriller, to upset the presumed sure-fire nominee, Thomas Dewey (who would famously lose eight years later in another similar upset to Truman). Presumptive nominee Obama swept caucuses, not the convention itself. Conventional wisdom has it that his nomination is inevitable, though apparently nothing should be taken for granted
During the campaign Willkie's inexperience began to show. He chose as a main theme the lack of preparedness of the military by the administration, perhaps to offset his isolationist reputation as it became more apparent that war was inevitable. Roosevelt easily outflanked this by expanding contracts and instituting a draft. Willkie then tried to capitalize on backlash to the draft, by changing the support he had announced for it to opposition. On the domestic front, he began to claim that he could run the New Deal programs more efficiently than the Roosevelt Administration and that he could work with business leaders more effectively.
Willkie lost -- 27 million votes to 22 million in an electoral landslide, carrying only ten states.
Why did Wilkie lose when the enthusiasm for him had been so great?
His lack of experience began to dawn on a lot of people. How could he claim he could run things much better than a solid veteran at administering the government? He had ridden largely upon the wave of isolationist, anti-war sentiment which was by far the dominant opinion until 1940; this changed drastically as 1940 went on. As in recent months, the situation on the ground changed.
Wilkie tried to have it both ways: keeping the enthusiastic anti-war people revved up by charging FDR with secretly trying to dupe us into war, while also trying to appear pro-military to a higher degree than FDR. The public caught on to this straddle.
From the privileged position of hindsight, we can see how this belied the whole basis of the movement in the first place, replacing the cause with a charismatic anointed leader. As the election got closer, sober-thinking Americans decided it was not time for a wager on someone so inexperienced.
Willkie actually got a record number of votes for a Republican and inspired millions to vote who might not have otherwise. However, he also inspired millions more to vote against him because they thought -- I think, rightly so -- he was risky.
He eventually changed his world view again and became somewhat of a spokesman for internationalism, writing the book, ‘One World'. He died of heart disease in 1944 as his comeback campaign was hopelessly faltering.
Looking through this story, a lot of comparisons have probably already occurred to you. Let me spell some of them out.
Obama, like Willkie, came ‘out of nowhere' w/little political/administrative experience. Wilkie actually comes out better on that score. Let's compare:
Each launched himself with one widely hailed performance, Obama with his 2004 Convention Speech, Willkie with his "Town Hall" radio broadcast. They both rode the wave of a powerful anti-war movements. On the basis of the number of people involved and apparent depth of enthusiasm, both stand out in our political history, possibly the top two in each category. They both defeated ‘inevitable' candidates in their parties who were each perhaps actually hamstrung by their own conceit of inevitability, Clinton and Dewey.
We can see certain trends that match pretty well. Notice that both Willkie and Obama had to jump off a powerful wave that got them their nominations. The "Willkie Clubs" were joined by other fast-growing, money-making, issue-driven isolationist groups. Obama was powered by the new, fast-growing, money-making, issue-driven anti-war groups like Soros' MoveOn, the Daily Kos and Media Matters.
The change in the world situation in 1940 and in 2008 forced each candidate to reverse, adjust or otherwise fudge his policy statements on war in ways that, in the end, appeared to be on two sides of issues, contradictory or disingenuous. Wilkie's campaign seemed to become more about him as a sort of anointed figure of destiny as time went on. Of course, since the early primaries, Obama has made the same sort of transformation, to the point of ridicule by his opponent, and is now battling a growing perception of arrogance. Each became pressured to claim they could do better at something despite their great lack of experience. Willkie could run New Deal programs better; Obama can run the war in Iraq and Afghanistan better.
Wendell Willkie and Barack Obama were both popularity-driven agents for "change" but when you examine the specifics of their policies they became not really all that different in substance from their opponents. Willkie's eventual position favoring internationalist support for England just short of war became virtually the same as Roosevelt's position; the difference became merely an anti-war slogan. Obama has ended up supporting much of what he opposed, despite being nominally against the war. Both chose to flip on key principle positions in order to model themselves on newly popular positions.
The choices Willkie made in the crucible of the campaign revealed that his lack of experience as a fatal flaw. He was not a champion of any one unshakeable principle in the end, but an untried celebrity riding a cultural wave. If he had been elected, it would probably have been catastrophic.
Obama, too, has been riding an emotional cultural wave of celebrity. His campaign has devolved into a cult of personality like Willkie's. We, once again, face an implacably evil enemy who threatens to employ even worse weapons than those we faced in 1940. We've seen this bullet coming at us before.