Meet The Indiana Businessman Who Paved The Way For The Trump Nomination

Jul 28, 2016

A Chicago Tribune insert cover from the summer of 1940 shows that year's Republican presidential nominee, Wendell Willkie.
Credit courtesy Indiana Historical Society

The 1940 GOP party nominations were done from the floor of the party convention, because the primary election season wasn’t what it is today.

And so, candidates could be plucked, seemingly from obscurity, to have their names put in contention. And if you had a friend like then-Indiana Congressman Charles Halleck, so much the better.

Halleck stepped to the podium in Philadelphia and, in a somewhat shrill, high-pitched, excited tone, entered his friend Wendell Willkie into the fray.

Willkie was born in the Madison County town of Elwood, and later lived with his wife on a farm in her hometown of Rushville. But – and here’s where the similarities with the 2016 nominee begin -- he’d built a career and a fortune in New York City.

The New York Times referred to both Donald Trump and Willkie as dark horse candidates – unlikely to win their party’s nomination.

Both energized supporters by their off-the-cuff manner. But that might be where the positive allusions cease.

Both men had to shrug off movements from within their party to stop them from reaching the top of the ticket. And they had to answer for why they were Democrats before they were Republicans.  Willkie took issue with that.

“The doctrinaires of the opposition have attempted to picture me as an opponent of liberalism, but I was a liberal before many of those men heard the word," he said.

“And it was the times, it was the context, it was all these forces that came together in the months before the convention in 1940, the months before the convention in 2016. In the case of 2016, we’re still trying to sort out and understand,” says Indiana University history professor emeritus Jim Madison, who curated a book of essays on Willkie.

“As much as he went away and changed, he still had connections to that kind of small-town America," Madison says. "I don’t think Donald Trump has connections.”

Madison says the two men ran very different types of campaigns. And in some ways, even their similarities bear this out.

Both used the media to their advantage. In his book Five Days in Philadelphia, author Charles Peters recounts how when Willkie arrived for the nominating convention, he decided not to take a car from the train station, but invite reporters along for a walk-and-talk, ask-me-anything-you-want stroll on the way to the meeting place.

Donald Trump has also used the media, but not as congenially…

“I find the press to be extremely dishonest. I find the political press to be UNBELIEVABLY dishonest, I will say that," Trump said earlier this year.

Both also saw their companies thrive. Though Willkie stepped down as president of Commonwealth and Southern, an energy holding company, its stock price rose. Donald Trump has mentioned his lines of steaks, wine, post-secondary education and casinos frequently on the campaign trail, all helping to build brand identity.

And both men even found ways to use game shows to promote themselves – but again, in very different ways. Willkie appeared on a radio quiz show called Information Please where, according to author Charles Peters, he answered questions on poetry, Charles Dickens novels and the presidential pocket veto – all of which made him look worldly.

Trump had his own game show for one year – designed to hype Donald Trump.

And the real estate tycoon himself, reading awkwardly from a Tele-Promp-Ter, even made an appearance on the pilot episode.

And lastly, there’s the electorate which swung behind both men. Here’s Trump at a Nevada campaign event earlier this year describing one of his key constituencies…

“We won with evangelicals. We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated – I love the poorly educated,” Trump said.

But Willkie was different. Though IU professor Jim Madison says Willkie retained a touch of his “common man” upbringing, former Interior Secretary Harold Ickes issued a famous quote about the elites who supported Willkie’s campaign. Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith recounted it on C-SPAN’s show “The Contenders”:

“Harold Ickes said that Willkie’s candidacy 'sprung from the grassroots of every country club' in America. There’s never been anyone like Willkie; it’s hard to imagine there ever being anyone like Willkie,” Smith says.

Madison says Willkie’s candidacy ultimately consolidated the party – though not in a grassroots way.

“The bottom line here is that the Republican leadership – the traditional leadership that did not want Willkie in 1940, actually reasserted control of the party,” Madison says.

And Madison says Willkie the outsider winning the nomination was the tip of the iceberg for a sea change about to happen in American politics. And within just a few election cycles, Southern Dixiecrats had become Southern Republicans. He says it’s a lesson that might be worth remembering as an uncertain GOP tries to rally behind Trump.

“We really struggle to understand what’s going on around us and, often, we fail miserably to understand it,” Madison says.

One last similarity to note. Both GOP candidates had to run against entrenched political machines with ties to New York State. FDR had been the governor, Hillary Clinton a U.S. Senator.

Willkie collected 82 electoral votes in 1940. Roosevelt won 449.