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Book Review: Pivotal year pushed us to the brink

I grew up not knowing much about Wendell Willkie, for I was only four in 1940 when he ran against Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency. I knew that because of his rural Indiana background, wags called him “the barefoot boy from Wall Street.” I also knew that my father had voted for him, as he also did for Thomas E. Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon. He only voted for a Democrat once. “I voted for Jimmy Carter,” said my dad. “Why, Dad?”

“Because he’s a farmer.”

My next brush with Willkie came in the 1980s when the Leuthold Group of financial advisers hired me to do two comedy routines for its New York City investors. My first stop was at the Women’s Republican Club in mid-Manhattan, the women were very kind to this rube and I thank them for it, but I couldn’t hold back a snicker because Willkie’s was the only portrait hanging in their lobby. A snicker because I had also been told years back that Willkie was a somewhat notorious ladies’ man.

After just reading “1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler — The Election Amid the Storm,” by Susan Dunn (Yale University Press, $35), I’ve learned a lot about Willkie and I must say I’m truly impressed.

Nineteen forty proved a curious presidential election year, thanks to Germany’s belligerence in Europe, a U.S. cultural icon who turned out to be an isolationist, and two candidates who had a difficult time disagreeing with each other.

Germany was already in Poland and Czechoslovakia and looking across the English Channel for further conquests. Ace pilot Charles Lindbergh was speaking at America First Rallies and cuddling up with Hermann Goering on a trip to Germany. And FDR and Willkie were urging America to vote against the isolationists.

That’s the story Williams College humanities prof Susan Dunn tells in “1940.”

Willkie turns out to be quite a guy and even though my politics tends a bit further left, I’m proud of my father for voting for him.

In 1940, governor of New York Thomas E. Dewey was the frontrunner in the race for the GOP nomination. As he did again in 1944 and 1948, he took the nomination — and his election — for granted. The barefoot boy from Wall Street — and Indiana — clobbered him. And that’s when the fun begins. The Republicans were hoping that FDR’s veep John Nance Garner would be the Democratic nominee. But Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term and his coalition of labor, Southern racists and liberals proved too much for Willkie.

It’s all sort of sad because Willkie was a reformer, a supporter of Jewish Americans, blacks, and internationalism, opposed to the threat of Fascists in Europe. And when he lost, the Republican party dropped him like a hot potato, returning Dewey and Taft of Ohio in the drivers’ seats which pretty much guaranteed Roosevelt a fourth term.

So congratulations to Susan Dunn for bringing to life an almost forgotten figure in American history.

I never seem to learn. I’m so often tempted to judge a book by its cover, which my sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Lily Reich taught me never to do. But sure enough I received “How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits,” by Duncan Gallowell (Terrace Books, $26.95) and was put off by the title. It sounded so 1970s. But I dug in and found a story that was fascinating.

Remember Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”? Remember the effete Sebastian Flyte, the aristocrat who had an affair with his classmate, the hero of the novel and the movie? Most folks knew that Waugh modeled him after his classmate Alistair Graham, who disappeared off the face of the earth soon after he broke up with Waugh. What happened?

Duncan Gallowell found out by sitting in a bar with a strange, rather effete character sequestered in a little town. It was Alistair Graham, who had chosen to drop out. Gallowell follows up with casual research that reveals a character just as interesting, maybe more so, than the fictional character Waugh created.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critic Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.