tv QA David Levering Lewis CSPAN November 5, 2018 6:00am-7:01am EST
today, we continue to bring you unfiltered coverage of congress, the white house, the supreme court, and public policy events in washington, d.c., and around the country. c-span is brought to you by your cable or satellite provider. ♪ >> this week on q&a, david levering lewis discusses his book "the improbable wendell willkie: the businessman who saved the republican party and his country, and conceived a new order." >> david levering lewis author of the improbable wendell willkie, the businessman who saved the republican party and his country and conceived a new world order i am going to go to your acknowledgments. all books have several beginnings.
one of them is a rewarding lunch seven years ago at new york university's faculty club with the corporate counselor wendell willkie ii, wendell willkie's grandson. why were you there and why was he there? mr. lewis: i was there because i wanted to know about his grandfather. i wanted personal detail, family lore. i wanted anything that he had never said before about the memory of his grandfather. it was a good luncheon. i got to know a great deal about wendell willkie ii. you would not see how far the chess not has fallen from the
tree. brian: how did you get there in the first place? mr. lewis: i was a chair professor in the history department at nyu. i thought that would be a congenial place to get together. my first attempt did not pan out. he had a conflict, and i figured, busy as he is, we may not get together. i tried again and succeeded. the choice of the locale was a good one. our synergy, i can describe it as such -- brian: why do you care about him in the first place? mr. lewis: a long time ago, i was writing another book and unrelated, i came across a letter from wendell willkie to one of the personi in the book i was writing. it was walter white. it was wendell citing he had had
the most restorative and gracious evening with walter and his friends. people may think he is depressed because of what had happened with his own party. he said, i am not depressed. you men understand what i am trying to do and what i tried to do. it was a great dinner. we are going to finish the book, walter. they were supposed to be writing a book about race in america. i put that aside and wrote several books. with my last book, which was all-consuming, my wife thought it was interminable, i did not want to be typecast it. it was a biography of an american intellectual, w.e.b. dubois. i was asked to do something in a
collection of essays about leadership. i thought, i have done two volumes about one leader. let me think of somebody else. i thought of something that would be brief, interesting, and would have echoes that would be significant to our days. the fact that he was a businessman and had never run for public office, who captured the leadership of the second -- the other party and it might have been president, was quite pertinent because we had the presence of donald trump and has clear ambition to run for public office. i thought, my goodness, how different, objectively similarities, but how different they are. brian: walter white. who was he? mr. lewis: he was the ceo of the national association for the
advancement of colored people. he had been there since the early 1930's. he was there until the eve of brown. he should have been credited with the success at the supreme court of brown versus the board. he died before it was ruled. brian: before we get there, wendell willkie lost the 1940 election against fdr. you also point out he was a democrat before he became a republican and became the nominee of the republican party. how does that work? mr. lewis: that is what
intrigued me, in addition to wanting to know about why he and walter white had been close friends and collaborators. he was the youngest utility holding company president in the u.s. he became president after the man who founded something called commonwealth & southern, a remarkable utility holding company, receded into the background as the american economy collapsed. he thought maybe i had better not be here because those of us who were in the utility business are being blamed for causing the great collapse. wendell, a brilliant young man from elwood, indiana, who had not practiced law in elwood, although his father was a leading attorney, as was his mother, instead had been urged
not to join the family firm in elwood but to seek a larger tapestry in which to knit his life. he became an important attorney in harvey firestone's legal division of the firestone company in akron, ohio. he did well. they reached out for this young man. wheeled him into manhattan. he became the president of commonwealth & southern. he became president at the very moment another ambitious man
occupied the oval office, franklin delano roosevelt. roosevelt campaigned against the malefactors holding companies and had a man named samuel insult had found a company called commonwealth edison. that fueled middle america. insole seemed to own much of america. when the depression came along, the implosion rattled much of the midwest. fdr he used insole, the money changer, to get them out of the temple. he did this over and over again. when he became president, fdr,
one of the first things he did in the first hundred days was to create with george norris, a senator from nebraska who fought henry ford, who wanted to buy surplus stuff after world war i on the cheap. muscle shoals, the government was going to produce nitrates for the war effort. no longer necessary. the tennessee valley authority was created wendell willkie argued knowledgeably about the problems that would ensue. for example, the cost of energy provided by the government entity would not be determined by market, but by the federal treasury. this would not be fair, he said. he said that to congressional committees and that they scratched their heads. this is going to make jobs for 20 or 30,000 people building dams. the great octopus was created come tennessee valley authority. it had three directors.
and roosevelt looked for the man most appropriate. his name was edward ernest morgan. morgan had been one of the great masters of the economy. he had served the needs of damming and irrigation and topography. his firm is quite famous. roosevelt asked him to be the first had. he was dubious about it. roosevelt, in no time at all, persuaded morgan he was the man for the job. as the man for the job, it would be his job, no politics. mr. morgan was the president of antioch college, a famous college founded by an educationist of legendary renowned. he had made the college the host for a publication, antioch review, and ecological reference for most people of the day. roosevelt said, i read antioch
review. don't worry. go ahead and do your job. morgan approached his job as a realist. there was commonwealth & southern servicing alabama, tennessee, parts of south carolina, parts of georgia, and mississippi. his job was to build dams and supply power. why not collaborate? so they went to the university club in a new york and liked each other.
roosevelt and wilkie saw this man as a visionary. morgan saw wilkie as a holding company president with values. they agreed they would collaborate. they would work out the details later of borderlines between tva and commonwealth & southern. the business of the cost of the electricity, how it would be determined. there was a mysterious yardstick concept that fdr liked. he said, the yardstick is the solution to public power, affordable, reliable. it seemed to mean that a firm would have to make a profit from selling its product to retail at the lowest price and still be constant with profit. that was the definition.
it was tva being able to undercut private power. that was to be later determined. the battle began as various officials of commonwealth & southern were less trusting of the cohabitation then wilkie. one person sued and went to court and it resulted in ash wander versus tva. alabama decided it would not play along with the tentative mandate. wilkie denied collusion. it seemed odd that he was
president of something called the edison institute, which funded the lawyers for the plaintiffs that he must be knowledgeable on it. roosevelt and he met tentatively for the first time and did not talk about the issue of commonwealth & southern and tva. wilkie had a pleasant conversation. roosevelt talked about the shooting club in akron, ohio that he belonged to. wilkie left the first meeting. when he was asked by the press what went on, he said nothing, it was nice. he found out later that the press was saying, the president said he debated you, he reduced to two stammering incoherence, he wonders -- it would be one that would
repeat itself many times. brian: i would like to go to video from 1939. he is giving a speech to the congress of american industry. this is 30 seconds. we can see what wilkie looked like. >> seven years ago, the people of the u.s. voted and what they thought was a great liberal campaign. they wanted to shake from their shoulders the burden of economic insecurity, of malpractice in business. and finance. a wistful speculation. they wish to control so far as possible, the conditions which limited the freedom of man. somewhere along the line, we lost the objective.
brian: he was talking about the election when fdr was elected and reelected in a landslide and 36. he is one year away from running as a democrat. mr. lewis: he would have said, i have no ambition. the idea that a utility mogul should run for even dogcatcher, given the fact that the depression was blamed upon, that is nonsense. in the opposition, the misunderstanding that ensued with the creation of tva, we have six years of combat circle through the supreme court three times, through the federal judiciary. the empire, time, life, and fortune, they watched the unfairness of government intrusion into the private sector without regard for consequences. realizing the solution was honest and fair collaboration.
it is over imperial presidency and alphabet soup bureaucracies that insist on interfering and sensitively managing the economy. his pronouncement, the newsreels that discovered him standing there before commonwealth & southern with his shovel and his gravelly indiana voice were compelling to the public. the shock of hair, the will rogerish of his demeanor. all of that invited a certain credibility that this is a guy one can trust. he has run a honest holding company and reached out for solutions.
the man who runs tva deplores the fact that they are in contention rather than collaboration. as wilkie explained, what the problem was was that roosevelt was captive of some of the ideologues of the new deal, the ultra progressives. lillian fall, the third member of the directorate of tva. there was adult durham and tommy corcoran. there were a whole stream of really end man coming out of harvard law and acolytes of
professor frankfurter who positioned in key spots in the new deal had a view that government must take care and redistribute the wealth of the economy and in doing so, those people who are culpable of the problems that had brought the temple down should not be trusted and should be policed. wilkie became the leader of a much bashed and diffident business community. as he developed a boilerplate for liberal capitalism that we would find quite orthodox.
brian: here is a newsreel you are talking about. he was campaigning in august of 1940. >> the indiana boy who came home to begin his campaign uses the challenge to debate important issues with the president. this is a wilkie and her mother up here before the crowd. wilkie the farmer, before leaving indiana, the republican hopeful torsos farm which comprises 1400 acres, an investment of a hundred $40,000 over seven years. moments of, before political turmoil. wendell willkie. brian: i would like to have you talk about him as a person because he saw his wife, as you say, was called billy at the
time and his son philip. he had a lady friend, i do not mean to call her mistress or whatever. tell us that story. and more about his person. you talked about his drinking and smoking. mr. lewis: wendell, when he reached new york to run commonwealth & southern, soon found very attractive, a woman who had been carl van dorn's wife. they divorced in 1939. it was a cocktail party that dorothy thompson through, the most famous couple in america at the time. there, he met her. at that point, it is not politics.
it is being able to be cosmopolitan, well bred, talk about culture. soon, he was reviewing books in the herald review as van dorn was the editor of the famous book of age. those reviews were luminous. so informed. i assume she had everything to do with the panache of the reviews. she was not someone who was just interested and culture, she was interested in politics. she began to encourage him to extend himself, widen himself and begin to talk about public issues, the economy, politics, liberalism. as a detention with tva grew, he
found himself a voice for those people who were concerned that the republican party was on life support and would never be redeemed and less there was somebody who had sex appeal and smarts. brian: when he was asked about his friend, van dorn, mrs. van dorn, who is married to call van dorn, and was the brother of mark van dorn, a professor, in columbia. did you know him? mr. lewis: i did not.
i was younger. [laughter] brian: back to the circumstances when he was challenged about having a lady friend, what did he say to the public and how did that track with being raised in a small conservative town where you say had not been back in 20 years? mr. lewis: everybody knows. that is what he said. i am not going to say anything other than that she is my good friend. the press was of the mind that unless it was absolutely flagrant and cannot be denied, you cut the bigamist slack. he did not say that. it was widely known that he spent most of his time in the
village with mrs. van dorn. brian: why did his wife put up with it? mr. lewis: i think part of the explanation is that mrs. wilkie was very delicate and had not recovered from her pregnancy. she was not very outgoing. here was a man who came from a large family, for boys, two girls -- there was simply one issue. i think that was something that explains wendell's receptivity to a relationship that was different. with mrs. van dorn, she was extraordinary. he benefited so much so quickly from her stewardship. those dinners on the east side. those meetings at the algonquin with the literati. all of that satisfied him.
as his articulate miss and public pronouncement became more notable, it was another man, or person, who would possess the man's mind, soon mrs. van dorn found she had a competitor in the man who headed the fortune magazine for them in davenport. davenport's invited wilkie, hearing about him, to speak to the forum. he was gob smacked. he said he went home and told his wife i have just met a man who should be a president of the u.s. he said it is this man wendell
willkie. he alerted henry lewis to this find, magazine and. they made several dinners. lewis was impressed by wilkie. he was something everybody had been looking for. there were other people noticing wilkie as he talks about the imperial presidency of fdr and the confiscation of private property represented by tva. they were the internationalist wing that of the public and party, never a large one in those days. they saw what was happening in germany was toxic and would probably metastasize.
if this country were unaware of what was going on and not politically prepared to face what was going to happen, it would be a disaster. they thought they saw in wilkie a closet internationalist. good reason to do so because bulky had, in 1924 and in 1926, attended the democrat convention and in each case, he went as the floor manager and acolyte newton baker -- woodrow wilson secretary of war, his air to save the league of nations and all that had been. wilson had failed at -- failed to bring to the u.s. and the senate successfully. there was also a man named frank have represented jewish americans who were concerned about the policies of the third reich. frank had been the vice chair of the committee of the republican party during the attempt in 1936.
great publicists who syndicated columns in which he said let's look at all of the republican possibles and he itemized them and drew exes across as he talked about them. he said, there is only mr. unknown. mr. unknown was wendell willkie. a man who had said and believed the greatest tragedy to the follies country in the 20th century was that we turned away from our obligations to the world and of the league of nations and the vision that wilson had taken from america to europe. brian: time goes fast. after he got the nomination, he
lost. fdr got 38 states and he got 10. fdr got 27 million votes, he got 22 million. he lost by 5 million. i want to put on the screen -- mr. lewis: this is the best until eisenhower. brian: he lost badly. i want to show on the screen some figures you can see. it shows what happened in congress and after the election, why did they think they could win? there were 260 seven members of the democratic party in the house of representatives. there were 162 republicans. 61%-37%. in the senate it was 66 democrats to 27 republican. he lost badly and congress was
in the democrats hand. why did the republicans think they can win? mr. lewis: that sounds dire. by 1939, the gloss was off the new deal. roosevelt had made a catastrophic decision. there are interesting stories about one john maynard came to see fdr and he went away saying, i do not think fdr is an economics man. it was true because he decided that the economy had a mistake and we needed a balanced budget policy. the economy went into a tailspin that was almost as bad as a 1932. 10 million jobs wiped out immediately. he discovered the wisdom of keynes reversed course.
it was a slow reversal. the spread of disillusionment with the new deal amongst the american middle class was extensive. there was something else contemporary that the supreme court opposed initial reforms of the new deal. roosevelt had thought social security would be declared unconstitutional. fearing that, roosevelt proposed to pack the supreme court to increase the number of justices as constitutionally, it is possible, from nine to 13 or 15. americans were outraged in the polls by that because this was the one unit of government that most people reverenced.
it was contemplative, fair, although, that it knows the history of being pro-business. the combination of the economic reversal, the supreme court gaffe, and the fact that roosevelt, though the wagner act and other acts had empowered labor, roosevelt did a dance on a rope between labor and business. the great mouthpiece of labor, john l lewis. he said, is labor contributing handsomely to the coffers of the democrats? no. by 1939, there was every reason to think this was the time and
roosevelt, is he during to run for a third time? is he going to violate what washington said? is he going to violate what no one had tried to do except general grant? even then, that is debatable. the republicans thought with wendell willkie, who triangulated, excepted the bonus, then the structure that the new deal gave. at the same time, who could talk about business using and optimizing the reforms of the new deal, that he would be a great salesperson. what happens is the economy begins, at the end of 1939 and early 1940, to rally because of
defense spending slowly. by 1940, we have selected service during peacetime. there are military contracts. in the offing. by the spring of 1940, the economy is beginning to rally. roosevelt is not to run. we do not know he is going to violate the code. no one knows, even his party does not know. the last week, there is uncertainty. any number of people think they can reach for the ring themselves, encouraged by roosevelt.
they would eliminate themselves and competition. when he declares he is in the game, those independents who had been shaken by the stumbles of the new deal now think what is happening in europe, this man has been there and wendell willkie may be as good as roosevelt, but he is not roosevelt in terms of accomplishments. that is why there was a gap. if you look at those numbers, they are a great triumph for fdr. he states the difference is a difference of a few thousand for those of electoral votes. brian: you say and the book that
fdr felt if it was not for wilkie, we might not have had -- what was lindley is and why did roosevelt say that? mr. lewis: the country is still bound to neutrality. it cannot take sides. roosevelt stretches the interpretation of that to have legislation that would give to the belligerence under the lend lease material to keep them going. the republican party was wholly against this. their leader astonished them by
returning from europe, where he had gone to england to see how likely the british were to deal with a blitz and the possible invasion by germany. he returned to testify before the foreign affairs senate committee. after lindbergh and our own ambassador and the college presidents have said, no lend lease. that is putting our foot into the water. that means we will be drowned. wilkie returned and spoke so effectively. he can do so because no member of congress had ever been abroad
in those days. no member of the foreign affairs committee, not senator bora or mcnary. they had never been abroad. he came back able to speak about church hill and even and beaverbrook and others. he said this is serious and existential. this is 1940. brian: during the election. mr. lewis: right after the election. brian: there is so much and there we are not going to talk about. he lost the election and it again in 1944 and did not get past wisconsin in the primaries. jumping to something else in the book, let me show you video from 1941 or 42, fdr is president for the third time, fourth time -- third time. this is from a newsreel story about wilkie being a special emissary.
i want you to talk about the trip. this is 30 seconds. >> the people of the u.s. have not seen the last of this man of courage. president roosevelt operate him an opportunity to serve by visiting england, the middle east, the soviet union, and china. wilkie is a man with a deep believe in democracy. roosevelt crossed political barriers and appointed wilkie as special emissary. his return to washington was triumphant. his trip was recorded in a book called "one world". brian: the voice over called him a man of courage. is that media bias? mr. lewis: no. the british found him to be. at hyde park, i bumped into a docent who said, what are you doing?
i said i was writing a book about wilkie. she said i am british and my earliest memory is being in the underground and will be coming down and saying, what are you doing lying down, get up. we are not defeated. he was singing running on a bike without anything on his head throughout london, jumping into pubs and having a pint of bitter. he electrified the brits. brian: this 31,000 trip, why did he go on it and where did he go? mr. lewis: the trip was his idea. he is inescapably the emissary of the president of the u.s. it was has resulted do so, welcomed by fdr.
he declined to have the title of representative of fdr. he said i am going on my own. off he went for 28,000 miles of circumnavigation. it was always reported as of 31,000. he dropped down into egypt on his way to cairo. it might have fallen at that. of time. he went to turkey, which was of time. he went to turkey, which was neutral. if they had not been, it would have affected the way germans were performing. he went to palestine and iran. he gives the boy shot his first plane ride. and flies to russia. there, he meets with stalin and debates the pros and cons of capitalism with the great dictator.
brian: what is this purpose? mr. lewis: to rally all of the planet to the cause of the united nations, the atlantic charter, and the defeat of the axis. many of the places he visited were dodgy. iraq, the british succeeded in defeating a major military operation by iraqis who are pro-nazi. it was important. the message was this time, when we win, we have to have a plan for how to make the world work. it is not to win, but to win for a purpose. that articulated position
everywhere he went did resonate, even with stalin. his time with stalin was remarkable and results in a bombshell because roosevelt neglects to tell wilkie that there will not be a second front that year. as he had promised stalin. there would be no second front the next year. it is remarkable that bit of information was not imparted to wilkie. that was not unlike fdr. he said in russia, this is outrageous. we must have a second front. these people are dying. they have given more than any other country. it was an outrage in london, washington.
it reflected the opinion of our military and george marshall and eisenhower. that is a different issue. brian: the thing that happened soon after this is he died at age 52. what was his health problem? mr. lewis: wendell, for his size, never did anything athletic. there was a rumor that he coached a basketball team once. no, he walked wall street. he smoked four packs of camels the day. he drank consistently. in wisconsin, he campaigned so intensely, he went to 30 places, 30 speeches he gave, he overextended himself and immediately went into denial.
he ignored all of his symptoms, nobody must know until that was too late. whether or not he might have emerged from the hospital with great care and a diminished schedule is debatable. it is conceivable. he was a lousy patient. he was talking and signing things and telling walter white he was going to finish his chapter as part of the book on american race relations. a bit of strep throat to come out, even though he seemed to have rallied. brian: i would like to ask about you. are you still teaching? mr. lewis: i retired three years ago. i am not teaching. i am trying to keep myself
occupied. my bibliography knowledge has slipped a bit. i continue to have writing projects. brian: how long did you teach at nyu? mr. lewis: 10 years. brian: before that? mr. lewis: records for a longer period. brian: you lost your wife in the middle of this. when did she die? mr. lewis: may 30, 2014 just as this project was getting underway. naturally, there were other things i focused on. >> seven years to do the book? or longer? mr. lewis: no. 2014 -- six and a half years.
brian: you are a twice pulitzer prize-winning author of books on w.e.b. dubois. this was not a flip surprise but you wrote a book on martin luther king. the three books, which was the hardest to write? you have got about 10 books altogether. mr. lewis: this one was difficult because of the grief. the satisfaction was robust. i like the man. as i was getting near the end, when i saw we were going to have a false wilkie in the white house or the chances that we
were, i thought it would be particularly -- have a particular resonance and the balance. he was a internationalist, a civil libertarian, a man of civil rights convictions that would have matched obama, perhaps. here was a man who was a liberal and accessible to the role of government in the economy but only to a degree. i thought all of the things about him were appealing. his honesty. there is a part where roosevelt asks wilkie to consider being the vice president but he is going to overthrow henry wallace and want somebody. wilkie says no.
and wallace had been a republican. then they have an agreement to create a new party after roosevelt is reelected in 1944. roosevelt's dying. nobody knew wilkie would not be around. roosevelt did not know that. it is clear that he wanted wilkie to be important in the u.n. and to be the council of the conquered germany. to be the civil authority there. between the two egos. in roosevelt's mind, would live on as wilkie running in 1944, --
not 1944, but in 1948, will be would be there. brian: what about you? mr. lewis: originally, i am from little rock, arkansas. i considered ohio and more formative place. my father was an educator and my mother was also. he was a college president. he was the dean of the school of theologies there. he was president of one of the colleges in atlanta, atlanta university. brian: why did you want to become a historian?
mr. lewis: it was in the study, the book when study growing up. i did trial law. i decided i would like to read history books. i think it was a smart thing to have done. the hours are good. the subjects can be terrific. brian: did you go to fisk university when you were 15? mr. lewis: i did. brian: how long did you spend there? mr. lewis: it was a four-year. i graduated at age 19. brian: why did you start so young? mr. lewis: i think it was because there was a special program called the poor foundation early entrance program, a model for accelerated
and -- education. it was an opportunity. instead of going to yale, my father's college, i jumped into fisk. brian: is there another book in you? mr. lewis: there is for sure. my first book interview was with you when we talked about volume one w.e.b. dubois. this is a wonderful opportunity to keep talking about books. if we could pledged that if the next book comes out we could talk again. brian: what would it be about? mr. lewis: a family history. i family is interesting in terms of its long residency in this
country. brian: how long? mr. lewis: it begins, the first census of 1790. brian: where did your family come from? mr. lewis: various places. africa. france. some of it, i am working on now. [laughter] brian: let's go to the cover of the book. the name of the book is "the improbable wendell willkie", the businessman who say the republican party and his country and conceived a new world order. our guest is david levering lewis. we thank you for being here. mr. lewis: it was great to be here. ♪ >> for free transcripts or to give us comments, as it us outline. programs are also available at c-span podcasts.
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