Bill Moeller Commentary: As the World Turns — a Politician Who Actually Followed His Beliefs


I was just thinking that I had promised more of an in-depth look at one of the more famous losers in politics, Wendell Willkie. 

He lost to President Roosevelt by five million votes in the 1940 election. Even at that, though, his 22 million votes were six million more than Alf Landon received in 1936. Willkie was 10 percentage points behind FDR in the popular vote and he lost in the Electoral College by a margin of 449 to 82.

Even Lewis County went Democratic in that election. 

This is somewhat paradoxical, because Willkie had once been a Democrat himself and had backed Roosevelt in the 1932 and 1936 elections. He is also one of the few presidential candidates  who had never held an elective office. 

He was straight out of Wall Street, having been the chief counsel for the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation and later rose to become its CEO. As a private power conglomerate, the firm  was strongly opposed to efforts by the federal government to implement the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, as it's simply known today. 

He felt, as many still feel today, that government involvement in the power sector is an unfair advantage, since the power could be sold at cost, whereas, in the private sector, power companies were beholden to stockholders who wanted to sell at a profit. 

Those feelings were enough to cause him to switch his political allegiance to the Republican Party. 

He went into the 1940 Republican convention trailing three other candidates, Thomas Dewey, of New York, Sen. Robert Taft, of Ohio, and Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, of Michigan. Dewey's youth — he was only 38 in 1940 — worked against him. Taft's outspoken isolationism was also losing  favor due to the recent fall of France and the threat of a German invasion of England.

Vandenberg was also an isolationist, but conducted a lackadaisical campaign. Willkie supporters began chanting from the balconies, "We Want Willkie, We Want Willkie." 

When the balloting began, Dewey, as expected, led with a total almost equal to the other three. Allegiances began to shift, though, when Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen endorsed Willkie in his keynote address. 

Finally, on the sixth ballot, Willkie emerged the clear winner. 

In the campaign, Willkie crusaded against Roosevelt's attempt to win a third term. The Republican Party was divided between isolationists and those who favored giving aid to England. 

Some Republicans were also wary of Willkie's having once been a Democrat and offered only lukewarm support. 

But Willkie was also a fearless campaigner, often speaking in pro-Roosevelt areas that still blamed the Republicans for the Great Depression. At times, he was physically bombarded with rotten  vegetables. I was only 12 at the time, but I remember once seeing a photo of Willkie continuing to  speak with traces of a broken egg trailing down his face. 

After losing the election, he gave his support to Roosevelt and to efforts to stop Hitler's aggression in Europe. Politics aside, in 1943, he was asked by FDR to make a global flight to let nations know that America was united in the desire to fight fascism throughout the world. Notes on this 52-day trip became the book called "One World" which, somewhat naively, suggested the  nations of the world could live in peace together after the war. I don't think it occurred to him what  effect communism, religious fanaticism and power struggles would have on the world of the future. 

In 1944, Willkie again made a try for the Republican nomination but was defeated, this time by Thomas E. Dewey on the first ballot. He died shortly after the convention in October of 1944 at the age  of 52. I wonder what these gentlemen would think about today's political world, the rise of fascism around the world repeating, the attempts to overturn elections in our country and the rise of violence among our own citizens?


Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at