Is Donald Trump 2012's answer to Wendell Willkie, the 1940 presidential candidate plucked from the private sector during the 1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia?
The comparison is tempting. Peter Grier, making the case in the Christian Science Monitor, called Willkie "trumpishly famous." Much like today, in 1940 the Republican party found themselves disappointed with their slate of candidates, which included New York Attorney General Thomas Dewey, Sens. Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Taft and former president Herbert Hoover. Both were high-powered businessmen -- Willkie the President of Commonwealth & Southern Corporation, the nation's largest electric utility holding company; Donald Trump, the real-estate scion who has grown his empire into the orbits of resorts, casinos and reality television.
Trump, on his road to the Republican nomination, has been forced to defend past donations and support for Democratic politicians. Particularly embarrassing for the nascent Trump campaign have been donations made during the most recent election cycle, including $4,800 to help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defeat Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle. Willkie was a life-long Democrat (and a past Roosevelt supporter) who did not change his party affiliation until the year of his nomination.
The similarities between the two men extend beyond the public arena. Trump, currently on socialite wife number three, would presumably have much to talk about with Willkie, who carried on affairs with literary icons Irita Van Doren and Josephine Pinckney.
These comparisons, though, fail to hold up once tone and intent come into consideration. As Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters wrote in his excellent book on the 1940 election, Willkie ran a campaign that appealed to the best of the electorate. France surrendered to the Nazis the day before the 1940 Republican Convention, and the views expressed by the Republican Party that summer and fall would go a long way toward shaping American opinion of the ongoing war in Europe. The stakes were dire. One major candidate, Herbert Hoover, was even willing to pitch his candidacy to national columnists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen on pro-German grounds: "Hitler was going to rule the world and the United States would have to do business with him. What the country needed was a man in the White House who had not alienated Hitler and who had contacts in Germany."
Willkie, however, rose to the moment. On the campaign trail post-convention, Willkie praised President Franklin Roosevelt's support for the British naval fleet and the implementation of selective service. At a time when every other major Republican presidential candidate was firmly in the isolationist camp, Willkie proclaimed his "wholehearted support to the president in whatever activities he might take." Before he died in 1944, Willkie told a friend: "If I can write my own epitaph and I could choose between 'Here lies an unimportant president' or 'Here lies one who contributed to saving freedom at a moment of great peril,' I would prefer the latter."
Contrast this with Trump, who has staked his entire campaign on fomenting conspiracy theories alleging Barack Obama is an illegitimate president. Literally every day, Trump has ratcheted up the volume of his birth certificate queries. He descended further into the gutter last week when he repeated scurrilous Internet rumors that Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, was really authored by Bill Ayers.
Willkie's quest for the Republican nomination and the White House allowed Roosevelt greater latitude to aid Britain's opposition to Nazi Germany, and he conducted himself with the knowledge that the fate of the world was at stake. Trump told CNN he plans to announce his presidential intentions during the season finale of his reality show. While there may be surface-level similarities between the candidacies of Trump and Willkie, such comparisons imbue Trump's shenanigans with an undue air of legitimacy -- and insult the legacy of a man who had a profound and beneficial impact on history.
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