PAUL DUNN: Will McCain Share Destiny of Willkie?
If the U.S. election were held today in Madrid, Barcelona or Lisbon, Barack Obama wins 75-25.
Recent pro-Obama and pro-American sentiment shown vividly in Berlin, Paris and London suggests he'd win in those countries too. But the election isn't today, and voters won't be foreigners.
Tis summer, when my wife, B.J., and I visited Spain and Portugal, we traveled with Americans from 10 states and talked to many citizens of Iberia.
Our fellow countrymen were of all political persuasions. Most were retired, a few in business or professions. A young Texas couple were currently in the military. A prosperous Iranian pair from Pebble Beach recently became U.S. citizens. A stoic restaurateur from Manhattan was born in India, a Hoosier couple were teachers.
Pasadena contributed apartment house owners and a retired postal official with a marvelous sense of humor. Brooklyn provided two vivacious nuns. It was quite a mix, but no Ship of Fools. They were widely read and up on current events. U.S. politics were never far away, with CNN and MSNBC news and the ubiquitous USA Today and International Herald-Tribune almost everywhere.
Inevitably dinner conversations focused on the dead-in-the-water economy and dismal prospects for a quick end to the costly Iraq war. The passengers represented middle-class America, with a fair sprinkling of diverse viewpoints and traditions.
They bemoaned diminishing market investments and were offended by our fallen reputation in the world. George W. Bush and his sidekick, Dick Cheney, were rarely defended. Avowed Republicans just shook their heads in quiet dismay. Everyone favored significant change, but the options were far from satisfying or clear.
Those enthused about Barack Obama knew too little about him. McCain's backers wondered how different he'd be from Bush. None questioned Obama's age or intelligence but worried about McCain's age and "maverick" reputation.
Locals were largely excited by Obama's candidacy. Without exception, all opposed Bush's war and hubris. They feared that a falling dollar and rising Euro will seriously inhibit Americans from visiting Europe.
I've tried to find an election in my memory bank that felt like 2008. The 1940 battle between Wendell Willkie and Franklin Delano Roosevelt comes to mind. Willkie, a prominent Indiana attorney, won the heart of the GOP's progressive wing, defeating reactionary Taft forces at a boisterous convention.
Big issues were possible U.S. involvement in war, preparedness and preserving economic gains achieved since the Great Depression. "No Third Term" and "No King Franklin I" buttons proliferated as a steady stream of vitriol poured on FDR and his wife, Eleanor, whom Republicans loved to hate.
Media owners mostly supported Willkie, whose campaigning was spirited and tireless. Although Eleanor was pilloried, FDR instructed his campaign neither to touch Willkie's wife nor to mention Willkie's marriage, which was less than it appeared, with a mistress well-hidden in the background.
That "sort of thing" -- and the fact that Roosevelt was confined to a wheel chair -- were not mentioned by the press in those more innocent days. With war raging in Europe and Asia, Americans feared changing horses in midstream. Until the votes were counted, the excitement and suspense were palpable. Roosevelt won by five million votes, winning in the Electoral College 449-82.
In the solidly Democratic South, African-Americans were generally denied the vote via poll taxes or outright intimidation. Lynchings and Ku Klux Klan threats were common. Though Willkie supported most New Deal initiatives, the Democrats ran against still bitter memories of Herbert Hoover's record in office. Hoover, a great American, was popularly blamed for the Depression.
The year 1940 was a time of fear and doubt. Americans voted for security, favoring the well-known Roosevelt and his record of progressive governmental actions that had restored the economy. After the political smoke cleared, America rapidly mobilized for war, which came on Dec. 7, 1941.
Unlike 2008, the nation was totally united regardless of party. In 1942, FDR even asked his recent opponent to visit foreign leaders and peoples on America's behalf, which the internationalist Willkie gladly did, while authoring "One World," a best-selling book promoting the United Nations ideal.
Sixty-eight years later, the electorate is very different. In 1940, blacks were denied the vote except in the North; in 2008, the black vote will be huge. Few Americans were college-educated; in 2008, college is commonplace. Emotional "tripwire" issues like abortion, flag-burning, school integration, intelligent design and "family values" were unheard of.
Independent voters were a rarity; party affiliations were strong. In 2008, independent voters may decide a close election. Young voters didn't vote. Voting age was still 21. In 2008, excited young voters are registering as never before. National political conventions were where candidates were selected, with big-city bosses often dominating choices. Now they're mostly dull TV events.
Try as hard as he could, Wendell Willkie could never rid himself of Hoover's dark shadow. Will McCain be able to rid himself of the even darker shadows cast by Bush and Cheney, many of whose unpopular policies he strongly supports?
That may just be the big question of 2008.
Paul R. Dunn is the co-author of "Great Donald Ross Golf Courses You Can Play." Contact him at email@example.com.
More like this story