A New York state of mind

Michael Barone anticipates the result of today’s New York primary in his column “New York exceptionalism and Donald Trump.” Barone seeks to capture the New York state of mind that Trump represents. It’s a characteristically excellent Barone column.

I’ve been thinking about the New York state of mind while reading Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941. I recommend the book unreservedly. There is so much intensely interesting history in the book, and it is packed with a great cast of characters. The Century Group, with which I was previously unfamiliar, alone supplies a panoply. The text runs over 450 pages and it is if anything too short to do the subject full justice.

Olson devotes chapter 12 to Wendell Willkie. Published in 2013, Those Angry Days wasn’t specifically intended to illuminate current events. Reading it today nevertheless evokes them, both by comparison and contrast. The contrast is as important as the comparison, yet one can’t help but hear echoes.

A prominent businessman, Willkie had first come to public attention as head of the Commonwealth and Southern utility opposing the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It was Willkie’s internationalist orientation, however, that distinguished him from Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft, his principal intraparty rivals. Dewey and Taft were attuned to the isolationism that ran deep in the country. In Dewey’s case, the isolationism was a matter of political calculation. In Taft’s case, it was a matter of principle. Olson attributes Willkie’s nomination to the coming of World War II in Europe.

As for Willkie, Olson writes, “He may have been a political amateur, but his passionate conviction appealed to a growing number of Americans, particularly those in his party who leaned toward liberalism and internationalism.” Indeed, Willkie had been a registered Democrat until the fall of 1939. Olson notes that he supported “a number of the New Deal’s reforms, including the minimum wage, a limit on worker’s hours, Social Security, and collective bargaining[.]” In the video clip below at the bottom of this post, dating from 1940, Willkie’s liberalism is apparent.

Here is just a slice of Olson’s chapter 12:

Before his meteoric rise in politics, Willkie had been president of one of the biggest power utilities in the country. But nothing in his appearance or manner suggested his close ties to big business. Tall, rumpled, and burly, he radiated warmth, magnetism, and an appealing homespun charm. He was, said novelist Booth Tarkington, a “man wholly natural in manner, with no pose and no condescension.” David Halberstam would later describe him as “a Republican who did not look like a Republican–the rarest of things in those days, a Republican with sex appeal.”

A native of Indiana, the forty-eight-year-old Willkie still spoke with a Hoosier twang. He retained other traces of his rural Midwest upbringing: having grown up in a community whose people never locked their front doors, he did the same at this Fifth Avenue apartment in New York–a source of constant astonishment to his wealthy, more security conscious neighbors. Underneath Willkie’s unpretentiousness, however, was a tough, canny operator, who in 1933, at the age of forty-one, had become president of Commonwealth and Southern, a utility giant that held a monopoly on electric power generation in much of the South.

Olson pays tribute to Willkie’s political skill in opposing the Roosevelt administration on behalf of Commonwealth and Southern, yet he lost that battle. Then we have this:

While Wilkie came from America’s heartland and had great appeal to those living there, his own attachment was to New York City and the urbane, sophisticated lifestyle he’d adopted…”I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he once exclaimed to a friend. “It’s the most exciting, stimulating, satisfying spot in the world. I can’t get enough of it.”

Part of New York’s allure had to do with his intimate relationship with a soft-spoken southerner named Irita Van Doren, with whom he fell in love and who, more than anyone else, was responsible for his becoming a major political force….Shortly after they met, Van Doren and the married Willkie began an affair.

Among those who have noticed some of the echoes of 1940 in the Trump campaign are Michael Beschloss, Lewis Gould, and David Stebenne.

Amity Shlaes recalls Willkie in her wonderful revisionist history of the Depression, The Forgotten Man. Amity’s 2009 Forbes column revives the Saturday Evening Post’s characterization of Willkie as “The man who talked back.”

My purpose here is to bring Olson’s book to readers’ attention and to note its incidental interest today.

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