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Five Days in Philadelphia

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Charlie Peters, former editor of the Washington Monthly, is one of those very partisan Democrats to whom the only good Republican is a dead Republican. And who is deader than Wendell Willkie? So in Five Days in Philadelphia , Peters offers Willkie a measure of praise. Willkie’s internationalism freed Roosevelt to do more to help Britain in the summer and fall of 1940 – to institute a draft to start training an army Ñ and to propose Lend Lease as soon as the election ended. The United States entered World War II late. But unlike in 1917, it entered the war ready.

Peters tells the story of the machinations that won the Republican presidential nomination for Willkie in the summer of 1940. It probably will not surprise you to hear that they were less spontaneous than they looked at the time. Henry Luce’s magazines publicized the owner’s chosen candidate; House Minority Leader Joe Martin used his chairmanship of the convention blatantly in Willkie’s favor; and the convention managers packed the rafters with chanting, cheering Willkieites while denying tickets to supporters of Robert Taft and Thomas Dewey.

Peters vividly reports all these ancient maneuverings. He does a fine job too summoning up the mood and feel of the time: I especially liked his account of driving to the Democratic convention in Chicago with his father later that summer, the radio stations fading in and out as they approached towns and then left them behind. The heavy-handed final chapter aside, Peters generally refrains from drawing contemporary lessons and parallels. The summer of 1940 is not exactly an obsure period in American history, but Peters tells his chosen portion of this great drama divertingly and well.

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