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Excitement as high as an elephant's eye

I can't help feeling that the Republicans this year need a Wendell Willkie. Under our bloated primary system, however, they aren't likely to get one. I remember coming to the Republican comvention at Philadelphia that hot June day in 1940 and going to the Taft headquarters in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel and noticing the most lifelike replica of an elephant I ever saw, right there in the ballroom, and of bracing my hand on its back to see better. I still recoil at the tactile shock I got, for it was alive (did you ever rest your hand on the back of a pigmy elephant? -- It is warm and has bristles like a toothbrush). Anyway, Bob Taft accepted "Blossom," or whatever the creature's name was, patiently, as the emblem of the GOP though his last request to his manager that night reportedly was, "Get that [expletive] Blossom out of my bedroom!" (Everybody liked Bob Taft; he thought is was dishonest to be tactful; one gag at the time was, "He has the best mind in the Senate until he makes it up.")

But where was I? The Republicans had plenty of good regular candidates in 1940 as they have today -- Taft and Dewey and Bricker and Vandenberg and Lodge and Saltonstall, and favorite sons galore. They had a real chance of victory: There was recession and unemployment; FDR had denounced the oil corporations; the nation was divided on foreign policy; there was the big emotional issue of the third term. The trouble with the GOP candidates was people felt that they had shelf-age, didn't electrify people; they didn't somehow seem to be in the Roosevelt league.

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In 1940 a "dark horse" galloped in out of Indiana and Wall Street. Wendell Willkie was a big, shaggy, wholesome man with tousled hair who liked to talk and laugh and who was, underneath, an urbane cosmopolitan. Nowadays the election campaign lasts an absurd 18 months, but in 1940 Willkie didn't even formally announce his candidacy until June 12 (the convention met June 24) and he entered no primary. He was well known; he was the foremost business critic of the New Deal and had attacked it for better or worse -- powerfully but with humor -- for six years. There wasn't TV in those days but Willkie had wowed them on "America's Town Meeting of the Air" (yes, sir; 10 million listeners, in 4 million homes) and had known the constitutional answers on the quiz program "Information Please" when Clifton Fadiman, Christopher Morley, Franklin P. Adams , and John Kiernan were stumped.

The Philadelphia galleries stamped "we want Willkie," the mails and telephone lines to delegates were swamped with supporters, pundit Arthur Krock of the New York Times likened him to a man who had set out on a mule to defeat a Panzer division (a poignant metaphor, for France had collapsed and Britain was at Dunkirk). Willkie won the nomination on the sixth ballot. In the election that followed he didn't beat FDR but probably did better than anyone else could have.

A Wendell Willkie today? Where is there spontaneity anymore? Today there are 37 state primaries (only a handful in 1940) and candidates plan for them years in advance. The first 1980 caucus (Iowa) comes in 10 days, the first primary, New Hampshire, Feb. 26. The election won't come till far-off November. Three-quarters of the convention delegates will be selected by primaries; it is all patterned in advance. George McGovern, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter got their nominations by winning a large majority of the delegates from the primary states.

I think the old days were a lot more fun. They brought out more voters, too. The turnout has dropped every time for the last four elections and was down to 54 percent in 1976. They are boring to many; not the kind of short, excited contest that Canada is now having, where 75 percent of the eligibles may vote.

Those days are gone.Republicans may need a Willkie -- rumpled, dynamic, unexpected -- but they won't get one under the ponderous primary system. I won't forget the gallaries in Philadelphia stamping out "we want Willkie in 1940 "; no, nor the feel of the bristles on that miserable pint-size elephant.


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