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Rants & Reason

Cries of ‘We want Willkie’ echo today


A testimony to the Cowles-Willkie friendship and their civil rights advocacy stands at 900 17th St. in Des Moines

Talk about good timing! Consider the recent release of “THE IMPROBABLE WENDELL WILLKIE, THE BUSINESSMAN WHO SAVED THE REPUBLICAN PARTY AND HIS COUNTRY, AND CONCEIVED A NEW WORLD ORDER.” The book, by David Levering Lewis, focuses on how Willkie was the surprising GOP nominee against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940 and how Willkie put national and global interests ahead of politics — an idea all but lost in the run-up-to and the aftermath of our 2018 mid-term elections.

The book also features an Iowa supporting cast in Willkie’s emergence as a presidential candidate. Yet he was a political foe whom FDR called a “godsend” in helping a divided nation rally in opposition to Hitler and in advocating civil rights and a “One World” approach to international relations. Willkie was the titular head of the GOP for a time, but his bid for a second presidential run failed before his death at 52 in October of 1944 partly because his “One World” view was derided as “Globaloney.”

The Iowa cast included former President Herbert Hoover, part of the GOP establishment that viewed Willkie with disdain; Henry Wallace, a founder of Pioneer and secretary of agriculture and vice president under FDR; Harry Hopkins, probably FDR’s most important aide, and the Cowles brothers, Mike and John, leaders of the publishing family so important in Iowa and Minnesota history. Mike was perhaps Willkie’s closest friend and John, one of Willkie’s trusted advisers.

A testimony to the Cowles-Willkie friendship and their civil rights advocacy stands at 900 17th St. in Des Moines — the Willkie House, a community center serving Black youths mostly. Perhaps the largest memorial gift to honor Willkie was the $125,000 given by John and Mike through the Gardner and Florence Call Cowles Foundation to what was then the Negro Community Center in Des Moines. The $125,000 in the mid-1940s figures to be about $1.7 million today.

Mike had been impressed by a Willkie article in the April 1940 issue of Fortune, “We the People: A Foundation for Political Recovery.” Willkie had already announced his presidential candidacy and had the support of Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life and Fortune. The Cowles brothers met Willkie later that month at a newspaper convention in New York City. Willkie was then 48 years old, Mike 37 and John 41.

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Willkie’s triumph at the GOP convention in Philadelphia — John wrote Willkie’s speech accepting the nomination — and his defeat in November is well told in the Lewis book and in Steve Neal’s 1984 biography, “Dark Horse.”
While they were Willkie supporters in 1940, the brothers’ bonds with him grew stronger after the election. In the span of some 30 months in the early 1940s, the brothers and Willkie shared adventures that each would consider among the highlights of his life.

John accompanied Willkie to England in late January and early February of 1941, laying some groundwork for the Lend Lease program of U.S. support desperately needed by Nazi-besieged England. Mike joined Willkie for the 49-day “One World” flight visiting U.S. allies just about everywhere else from Aug. 26 to Oct. 14, 1942.

The value of those trips and the role of Willkie in helping unite a divided nation are underscored in FDR’s rebuke when Hopkins was dismissive of Willkie. FDR scolded, “Don’t ever say anything like that around here again. Don’t even think it. You of all people ought to know that we might not have had Lend Lease or Selective Service or a lot of other things if it hadn’t been for Wendell Willkie. He was a godsend to this country when we needed him most.”
Willkie’s “One World” book, published in spring 1943, sold more than a million copies in seven weeks. Its final chapters, “Our Imperialism at Home” and “One World,” warn against destructive nationalism and plea for protection of minority rights — themes touched upon in plaques at Willkie House.

That was needed wisdom in Willkie’s day and needed in ours.

A postscript: Willlkie House is the tip of philanthropy that enriches Des Moines, which has benefited from the civic leadership of family-founded companies like those of the Cowleses, Merediths, Ruans, Knapps, Levitts, Nelsons of Kemin Industries, the Hubbells, the Brentons and others. That generosity is evident in the Civic Center, the Art Center, Papajohn’s Sculpture Park and more. All this is why I was upset by Gov. Kim Reynolds’ campaign smear of Fred Hubbell as sort of a Scrooge and why I appreciate the Willkie House story so much. ♦

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants and Reason column for CITYVIEW.

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