Monday, November 2, 2020

Win with Willkie

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Can anyone remember the last time a presidential candidate visited Chemung County? It wasn’t in my lifetime, that’s for sure. There have been a few vice-presidential candidate visits including Richard Nixon in 1952 and Spiro Agnew in 1972, but we haven’t merited top billing in a while.

The last presidential candidate to visit our fair county was Wendell Willkie (1892-1944). In 1940, he ran on the Republican ticket against the Democratic incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. Willkie was a corporate lawyer and life-long Democrat who had helped on various political campaigns, but had never run for office himself. Due to his corporate leanings, he became increasingly displeased with Roosevelt’s New Deal and was actually involved in a lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1938, several of his friends began urging him to run for president on the Democratic ticket. Once it became clear that Roosevelt intended to run for a third time, Willkie registered as a Republican and put himself forward as a candidate in that party instead. 

Wendell Willkie, 1940

 Wendell Willkie was unexpected as far as Republican presidential candidates go. Not only was he, as mentioned, a lifelong Democrat, he was a political outsider who had never run for nor held political office. He didn’t even bother to run in the primaries, he just put his name forward at the Republican convention and won the nomination mostly based on his image as a pro-business moderate who could bring over disillusioned Democrats. He ran on a platform of keeping some of the more popular New Deal programs, while simultaneously instituting pro-business reforms to get the economy rolling. Although he initially came out in support of the US getting involved in the war in Europe, he took an increasingly isolationist tack once it became clear that polled better.

On September 12, Willkie launched a whistle-stop tour by train. Between then and November 2, he reached 31 of 48 states. On October 25, he hit Elmira. At the Erie Railroad station, he was met by a reception committee comprised of Senator Chauncey B. Hammond, Mayor J. Maxwell Beers, and City Manager Ralph Kebles, as well as local Republican Party officials Charles Perry and Alexander Falck. A crowd of some 200 people awaited Willkie as he exited the station and got into a car accompanied by his wife, Edith. 

Wendell Willkie and the Elmira welcoming committee

Wendell & Edith Willkie in the car from the station

Willkie’s motorcade took him to a raised platform with a canopy at the corner of Church and Main Streets. Somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 people braved the damp to listen to him speak. According to the paper, he mostly focused on his economic platform designed to unleash the country’s full economic potential and on the dangers of the national debt and fascism. After speaking, he signed autographs for a bit before hopping back on the train. 


The crowd gathers to hear Willkie speak

In the end, Willkie lost his presidential bid by about 5 million votes. His supporters, mostly white, affluent, and suburban, were no match for Roosevelt’s working class, multi-ethnic coalition. Gracious in defeat, Willkie accepted a position as Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Great Britain at a White House party on the eve of the president’s third swearing-in. He ran for president again in 1944, but failed to clinch the party’s nomination and died not long after.

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