David Levering Lewis’s book, The Improbable Wendell Willkie, is aptly titled. Like a shooting star, Willkie burned brightly, if briefly, over this country’s political landscape, leaving behind an astonishing legacy of bipartisanship that had an outsize impact on the outcome of the war ... Lewis...offers an insightful...portrait of this political neophyte from the Midwest — a registered Democrat until 1939 — who stunned his newly adopted party and the nation by snatching the nomination away from the front-runners Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft and then sabotaged his own campaign by putting country above party ... Over the last seven decades, Willkie has largely disappeared into the mists of history, recalled, if at all, merely as one of Roosevelt’s defeated rivals. As Lewis makes clear, he deserves so much more, not only for his crucial contributions to American unity in World War II but also for his lifelong commitment to civil rights and intense opposition to racism.
With meticulous attention to detail, Lewis recounts the life story of an intriguing character ... This biography is one part political yarn, one part love letter to an extinct creature: the liberal Republican ... Deeply researched and engagingly paced, the book weaves Willkie’s life into the fabric of U.S. history. With attention that borders on reverence, Lewis introduces the young populist raised in the Democratic traditions of both William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson ... In the end, though, Lewis’s subtitle — 'The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country, and Conceived a New World Order' — promises more than Willkie’s too-short life delivered.
Fortunately, Lewis spends little time on the surface levels; the last thing the reading market needs is the refashioning of Wendell Wilkie into some kind of Trump manqué. Rather, The Improbable Wendell Wilkie delves shrewdly and deeply into the fundamentals of the man and his time. Lewis clearly wants to create the most rounded personal and political portrait of the odd phenomenon of Wendell Wilkie yet written, the kind of clear but sympathetic assessment that phenomenon has always deserved but that comparatively few historians are equipped to make. The book succeeds admirably. Lewis’ notes and bibliography reveal his customary enormous and wide-ranging research, but as in his earlier biographies, so too here: the book’s most reliable delight is its bright parade of perfectly-realized characters ... no previous biography has given the modern reader this kind of immediate sense of...the multifaceted appeal of the man [Wilkie].
Wendell Willkie was a fireball of energy, tenacity, business acumen, ideas, and ideals. His exuberance is matched by that of David Levering Lewis, the biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois, in his deeply researched and highly absorbing book The Improbable Wendell Willkie. Improbable indeed ... as Lewis persuasively argues, Willkie’s decisive legacy to postwar politics was the gradual, grudging acceptance by the party that disowned him of the bipartisanship and internationalism he fervently advocated.
Willkie’s story has been told in several biographies, including the superb Dark Horse, and Lewis doesn’t claim to break new ground in this book. But Lewis, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner... does provide deeper insights into Willkie’s promotion of racial equality. Annoyingly, however, he takes a gratuitous swipe at an early biographer, and his grandiloquent, magniloquent, orotund writing style (see what I did there?) ... But none of that detracts from recounting the arc of Willkie’s life, from modest Hoosier roots, to 'barefoot' Wall Street lawyer, to utility executive, to presidential hopeful, to a voice for internationalism.
... rousing ... Thankfully, Lewis’s book allows readers to glimpse a more complicated and less predictable Willkie, an 'improbable' figure whose ideas laid the foundation for a road not taken in American politics ... Lewis is well-placed to offer a fresh view of one of the 20th century’s more neglected figures. His dignified, agreeable, and sometimes ramshackle tome—reminiscent of its subject himself as it tumbles along in high spirits, throwing off insight and wisdom—reveals Willkie as a charismatic and iconoclastic champion of civil rights, free speech, and internationalism. And yet Lewis also underplays Willkie’s most important intervention, hailing him as Roosevelt’s partner in building an American-led 'new world order' rather than seeing him for what he was: the largely forgotten but indispensable tribune of an alternative internationalism that did not seek to supplant Old World imperialism with its New World counterpart.
What happens when a rogue businessman hijacks a Republican campaign? That is one of the questions that David Levering Lewis asks in his insightful, disciplined biography of the 1940 Republican candidate for president, Wendell Willkie. Willkie lost the election, but along the way he shifted the parameters of debate over the war in Europe, replacing the question 'Should we engage?' to 'When should we engage?'. As Mr. Lewis shows in The Improbable Wendell Willkie, the 1940 election wasn’t the only time that Willkie startled America into new thinking. Particularly notable were his drives to rein in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, advance civil rights and set up a system for postwar geopolitical governance. The unlikely Hoosier proved to be, as Mr. Lewis says, an 'extraordinary internationalist.'
So unexpected was Wendell Willkie’s 1940 Republican presidential nomination, historical lore has attributed it to a conspiracy-like, inner-party cabal. Although the story does contain such an element, the context, as chronicled by...Lewis, renders Willkie’s meteoric rise understandable, if not predictable ... Regaling politics aficionados with details about how Willkie became GOP’s candidate, Lewis also offers a lively account of Willkie’s record-setting campaign. Though defeated, Willkie earned the reelected FDR’s favor and carried out wartime inspection trips until he died suddenly, in 1944, and faded from history. Crediting Willkie with advocacy of civil rights and world peace, Lewis delivers a thoroughly researched and discerning portrait that will reestablish Willkie’s political significance.
In 1940, Roosevelt was deciding whether to run for a third term, a war in Europe was raging, inflaming debate about whether the U.S. should join, and the Republican Party was looking desperately for a candidate who could take back the presidency. The man they chose was Indiana-born Wendell Willkie (1892-1944), a wealthy businessman with no political experience but considerable charm and who only recently had changed party affiliation ... historian Lewis...draws on abundant archival and published material to create a...portrait of the charismatic, outspoken Willkie, who took the political spotlight from 1940 until his death four years later.
In folksy prose, Lewis tracks Willkie’s evolution from small-town Indiana Wilsonian Democrat to utility company executive, then to, in Lewis’s description, 'certainly one of the most unexpected, if not unlikely, candidates for presidency' ever on the Republican ticket ... Lewis does not shed much light on Willkie’s personal relationships, but his swift, thoughtful biography makes clear Willkie’s importance in WWII-era America and his lasting impact on domestic and international policies.