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GOP has nominated an ‘outsider’ for president before

June 19, 2016 at 5:47 PM EDT
If New York businessman Donald Trump, having never held office, secures the Republican nomination for presidency at the national convention in Cleveland next month, he won’t be the first political “outsider” to lead a major party. Special correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports on the history of U.S. presidential campaigns.
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This week, in the final presidential primaries, former Secretary of State, Senator, and First Lady Hillary Clinton claimed enough delegates to capture the Democratic presidential nomination — so at the Democratic national convention in Philadelphia next month, she’ll become the first woman to ever lead a major party ticket.

On the Republican side, presuming New York businessman Donald Trump is nominated for president at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, also next month, he won’t be the first outsider to lead a major party in the Fall. As Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports — that first happened 75 years ago.

Read the full transcript below:

JEFF GREENFIELD: Our Presidential nominees have come from many places.
They’ve been Governors- both Roosevelts, Carter, Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney. They’ve been Senators-Warren Harding, JFK, Bob Dole, Kerry, McCain, Obama. And they’ve been Generals-Washington, both Harrisons, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower.

ANNOUNCER: The 22nd convention of the Republican Party will now come to order!

JEFF GREENFIELD: But until now, for more than 200 years, only one genuine outsider has ever won a major party Presidential nomination: Republican Wendell Willkie, in 1940.

WENDELL WILLKIE: I pledge myself to you and I ask each of you to join with me in this great crusade.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Willkie’s success offers some lessons for 2016.

Willkie was a child of heartland America. Born and raised in small town Indiana. His blend of intelligence and discipline brought him to the peak of business success as president of a major public utility holding company, where he gained fame as a sharp critic of FDR’s New Deal regulations and as an advocate for social reform. That proved an appealing package for what was then a dominant wing of the Republican Party.

The Republican Party of 1940 was very different from today’s version. Its power center was here in the East and especially in New York, where the financial and media powers embraced more moderate and liberal ideas than their Midwestern conservative rivals. They also were much more inclined to help European nations besieged by Hitler’s Germany — in contrast to the powerful isolationist Republicans. More and more, these power brokers saw Willkie as their ideal candidate.

TIME magazine, the widely-read New York-based newsweekly, put him on the cover in 1939. FORTUNE, LIFE and other mass magazines followed.

And while there was no Twitter or Instagram for Willkie to polish his own image, his witty appearance on the popular radio quiz show “Information Please” dramatically raised his public profile.

ANNOUNCER: Mr. Willkie. He entered World War I as a private and how did you come out Mr. Willkie?

WENDELL WILLKIE: Well, I was a first lieutenant throughout the war. I was recommended for a promotion at the end, when they knew I was through.

JEFF GREENFIELD: As the 1940 campaign approached, three Republicans appeared be the leading choices for President. The Senior Republican in the U.S. Senate, Arthur Vandenberg, of Michigan. Senator Robert Taft, of Ohio, the symbol of Midwest conservatism and son of a former President, and the 37-year-old organized crime-busting District Attorney of Manhattan, Tom Dewey. All three espoused isolationism and avoiding any U-S involvement in brewing European conflicts.

But that view became increasingly hard to sustain by the spring of 1940, as Hitler’s armies had conquered Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and France.
As the convention began, Willkie was the only Republican presidential hopeful embracing the idea of American aid to Europe. The Eastern media redoubled its support for Willkie as the convention balloting drew near. Its semi-official voice, “The New York Herald Tribune,” ran a front page editorial urging his nomination, the first in its history.

The galleries, packed with Willkie supporters, filled Philadelphia’s convention hall with a chant that dominated the proceedings.

CROWD: We Want Willkie!

JEFF GREENFIELD: A united opposition might have prevailed over Willkie, but just as in this year’s Republican race, that opposition did not unite. On the sixth ballot, Willkie won.

CHAIRMAN: Anyone in favor of making the nomination of Wendell Willkie unanimous, kindly say aye.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Willkie couldn’t stop FDR from winning an unprecedented third term that November. More importantly, Willkie supported the President on two critical policies. The first peacetime military draft in U.S. history and leasing war equipment to Britain. A more partisan Republican nominee would never have done that. After the election, Willkie became one of Roosevelt’s strongest allies in mobilizing the country for the war that was to come.

Now, three quarters of a century later, another outside appears to have captured the Republican nomination. But unlike Willkie, Trump’s victory came not from riding the forces of the Republican establishment, but by vanquishing them.

Special thanks to Indiana University Bloomington Lilly Library, Indiana University Bloomington Office of University Archives & Records Management, the New York Public Library, Lake Maxinkuckee Its Intrigue History & Genealogy Judith E. (McKee) BurnsHistory & Genealogy Judith E. (McKee) Burns; © 1990-2016 and Charles Peters, author of “5 Days in Philadelphia.

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