Wendell Willkie lost the 1940 presidential election but became one of America's most effective ambassadors, embarking on a seven-week plane trip to bolster the allied cause. At a time when “America first” is again a rallying cry, Willkie’s message of international friendship and peaceful engagement provides a reminder that the United States was once a force of global unity.
In The Idealist, Samuel Zipp, a cultural and intellectual historian at Brown University, has captured Willkie’s 'brief, blazing moment,' a little-remembered interlude when America was at war but already worrying about the postwar order ... Mr. Zipp acknowledges Willkie’s naiveté, but his portrait is a friendly one. When, in the Soviet Union, Willkie enthused over plans for a massive hydroelectric project on the Volga, Mr. Zipp explains away the irony that Willkie had launched his political career in opposition to state electric power in America. And his criticism of Willkie’s support for free trade feels politically freighted ... Mr. Zipp sees Willkie’s vision as timeless, but The Idealist is mostly a cautionary tale.
The Idealist is Samuel Zipp’s idealizing and less than ideal account of how Willkie briefly captivated the American imagination ... Zipp...might be overestimating the powers of cultural memory. The bulk of Willkie’s impressions are naïve and generally forgettable ... Zipp’s able and even account rarely intrudes on its subject ... Willkie caught the zeitgeist by the tail, only to have it slip away. The philosophically inclined and the serious student of American history might not be satisfied by The Idealist.
... [an] admiring and exhaustive deep dive ... Zipp’s frequent asides explaining the geopolitics of each stop on Willkie’s journey provide crucial information but slow the narrative down somewhat, and readers not well-versed in foreign policy may find the level of detail dizzying. Nevertheless, this insightful and nuanced portrayal successfully elucidates Willkie’s globalist politics and America’s emergence as a world leader.