A REPORTER LOOKS BACK: WHEN WILLKIE TOOK ON FDR-AND LOST
Washington — In Europe, France fell; in Britain, there was the Dunkirk disaster. In the United States, unemployment dragged on. In Washington, a two-term President kept silent -- would he seek a third term? In Philadelphia on a torrid June 24, 1940, Republicans assembled. They were uncertain and worried: All the candidates seemed overfamiliar; all but one. How about this new figure out of the Midwest, Wendell Willkie?
He had not entered a single primary. he had not announced his candidacy until 10 days b efore the convention. He stepped off the train from New York at 2 o'clock at the 13th Street Station, Philadelphia, and no band proclaimed him. He had engaged only two rooms at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel (Tom Dewey had 78 at the Walton.) he did not know that he was supposed to have a convention floor manager. He did not even know who would nominate him.
But it was not all as amateurish as it looked. Willkie had skyrocketed out of nowhere. He had never held elective office. Who was he? Just the head of one of those big corporations, Commonwealth & Southern, the kind of "economic royalist" President Franklin D. Roosevelt had pilloried for eight years. He was big, tousle-haired, attractive man, smart as they came -- "as American as the courthouse yard in the square of an Indiana county seat," said Booth Tarkington.
And Willkie was known. Radio was the marvel of the day: He debated on America's "Town Meeting of the Air" to an estimated 10 million listeners in 4 million homes. People couldn't see him, of course, not like television, but sitting at their Atwater Kents they heard the ovation he got as he appealed for an end of government business-baiting: "We are not enemies but friends," he cried. "We must not be enemies!" The audience cheered.
It wasn't as casual as it looked. he had prepared for the test where it counted, at the grass roots. There were now 700 Willkie clubs. Some 5 million had signed pro-Willkie pledges. Supporters brought bright young enthusiasts to Philadelphia -- sometimes in the past convention galleries were empty. Not this time; the Willkie youth packed them. The gavel cracked, the gallery chants began, "We want Willkie!" Stamp, stamp, stamp. . . .
A reporter looking back discovers that the things he didn't write about are the things principally remembered: the shirt-sleeved press tables; the hot, rancid smell; waving arms; stamping galleries -- particularly their pount-pound-pound, the rhythmic chant aimed at the uneasy delegates down below in the vast hall:
"We want Willkie!"
They helped nominate him no doubt, that sticky Thursday night when the break finally came on the sixth ballot: "Mr. Chairman," said the grating voice over the loudspeaker, "Pennsylvania . . . casts . . . her 72 votes . . . for Wendell Willkie." band and organ crash out. What are they playing? Everyone smiles -- "It's Off to Work We Go" they blare together, from the jolly new movie, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
So what will President Roosevelt do now, we ask. He was making defense "inspection trips" above the political battle; running without running. They didn't call it "Rose Gardening" then but it was the same thing. FDR was also teasing the press. Two press conferences a week with individual reporters who were generally friendly to him. Their publishers were venomous to the point of hatred.
The press conference I remember is the one where FDR bantered with Earl Godwin, a genial reporter-broadcaster of the Washington Times (owned by Cissie Patterson, who loathed Roosevelt). We gathered in the pillared lobby at the round. Mahogany table with water-buffalo heads, then crowded into the Oval Office. roosevelt sat behind his desk, littered with totems; a smiling insouciant figure as reporters pushed against each other. Questions began. . . . Godwin observed that four reporters were broadcasting that night and then (as though a happy thought had just struck him) he said how appropriate it would be if they had something to say about the third term. Everybody laughed at the pleasantry, but suddenly fell at Roosevelt's face. Why, he was thinking it over!
There was silence as he pondered. What time was the broadcast, he asked. Eleven-fifteen, said the agitated godwin. FDR's face fell again. It was an act. What a shame, he ejaculated, he would be in bed then. . . . Finally his face relaxed into a grin. Shortly we dashed out of the room for the phone booths, still smiling even though the joke was on us. . . .
One other scene from the 1940 album: Willkie's acceptance speech at Elwood, Ind. Did he lose the election because the sun got in his eyes?
I scouted the small town of Elwood in a taxi with Doris Fleeson and H. L. Mencken. How many people are expected, we asked Homer E. Capehart, in charge of arrangements and later a US senator. A quarter million, he boasted -- the biggest American political rally in history!
What? In this little town, we asked in wonder. We looked out at the pastureland. How about plumbing, we asked. Capehart gave us enthusiastic details, which delighted Mencken's Elizabethan humor.
Willkie's inexperience showed in details. Politicians print speeches in capital letters to read easier; Wilkie's was in ordinary type. He had not apparently practiced it. When he motored from Rushville to Elwood, 55 miles, he forgot the crucial manuscript. A motorcycle cop roared in with it. The heat was brutal, 103 in the shade, and Wilkie was out in the glare. He wanted to visit his old high school before speaking. The crowd engulfed his car and he had to be rescued by a police wedge.
Willkie dabbed his face as he stood in the open car riding to the platform. He looked near collapse. There was a press tex now, and I read it. The speech seemed to offer plausible alternative to the New Deal, ending with a challenge to FDR to debate.
Just as he started, Willkie with a characteristic gesture, threw away his gum and the crowd chuckled. But something was wrong. The punch lines I had underlined weren't going over. Here was one that should have brought them up shouting. It fell flat. The sun got in his eyes. Over the radio millions listened. For some passages he did not even change emphasis. The crowd quieted. They wanted red meat; they wanted Roosevelt lambasted. I found myself delivering the speech under my breath; what FDR would have done with it. . . .
Our special press train argued about the delivery of the speech all the way back to Rushville. I had just joined the group and learned an "in" joke. Baltimore Sun correspondent Dewey Fleming drawled out, "Of course, you know Hoover . . ." and made a circular wave of his hand. for some reason, everyone roared. Explanation? It seems this was a favorite Willkie gesture; he had just met former President Hoover, still burdened by 1932, and disagreed with him over his proposed hard conservative line. (The right wing pushed Willkie; he finally yielded to it). So he gave the deprecatory gesture!
Ah, me; for that brief moment in time, among a select group, on a rattling train, a small gesture eliciting merriment. It's odd over the years how you forget the big things; the little things you remember. . . . The polls said 1940 would be close but FDR won, 27 million to 22 million. Would it have been closer if the sun hadn't got in Wilkie's eyes?