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.
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].
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.'