Before The Rot Set In: Wendell Willkie And James Beggs [Corrected]

A quote in an obituary for long-time NASA chief James Beggs, who died this week at the age of 94, shocked me into realizing once again how alien basic ethics have become to our leaders in business, government, politics…hell, just about anywhere.  And once again, I’m wondering what good I’m doing, and why I bother.

Beggs had overseen more than 20 successful space shuttle launches, but he was on administrative leave due to an investigation of his conduct when the Challenger launched and exploded in 1986. As we have discussed on Ethics Alarms, a landmark example of failed ethics and decision-making caused the temporary leadership of NASA to ignore dire warnings from two engineers and send the shuttle and its precious human cargo up in dangerously cold weather.  Indeed Beggs called NASA  from his exile that fateful day to express his concern about icing. He resigned from NASA in 1986, about a month after the Challenger disaster.

Beggs was reluctant to criticize his former agency’s culpability in the accident, but he was adamant that “they shouldn’t have launched.”  “Whether I would have done anything different at the time, I’ve thought about that,” he said. “I think I would have, but that’s pure conjecture.”

Remarkable. How often does a critic of a past decision have the intrinsic fairness and integrity to say that? The Wuhan virus landscape has been polluted by extravagant and unjust second-guessing from the start, as everyone from politicians to pundits to plumbers are just certain that they would have known how to handle an unprecedented situation with significant unknown factors and substantial risk. They would have reached a different, quicker,better approach than the individual who actually had to make the call.

It’s a disgusting spectacle, and an unethical one. The “right” decision can always be made to seem obvious after the fact; critics cannot possibly know what their state of mind would have been at the actual time the decision had to be made by someone else. Beggs’ acknowledgement of that, in a situation where he could have credibly second-guessed his colleagues without equivocation, demonstrates the character of a decent and ethical professional determined to do and say the right thing even when opportunities are present for personal gain.

That story, in turn, reminded me of…Wendell Willkie.

In 1940, as war was raging in Europe and the Depression was deepening at home, the Republican party nominated Wendell Willkie, a true “dark horse” candidate and a political amateur—he had never run for public office—to take on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he sought a second term.  Willkie  was an Indiana-born utilities industry executive who  hadn’t even switched switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. The stout, handsome, charismatic  candidate “radiated a stunning combination of intellect and homely warmth,” as one admirer put it at the time…and he had a real chance at winning, particularly if he made Roosevelt seem more likely to get our soldier killed on foreign shores. Roosevelt was also attempting to win a third term, breaking George Washington’s unwritten rule. It was by far the toughest of his four campaigns. FDR was vulnerable.

By the time the Republican convention gaveled to a close, Nazi Germany was in the process of taking over France.  Alarming as the international situation was becoming, the American public was still in the throes of isolationism, though its President was stealthily and sometimes not so stealthily preparing it fight Hitler. In 1940, Roosevelt was engaged in persuading a dubious population to accept his plan of trading 50 mothballed destroyers to Britain for its defense. The War and Navy Departments were fighting him, alarmed that this might leave the United States itself dangerously exposed. Most lawmakers and a majority of the public shared their opposition to the idea.

But Wendell Willkie, through intermediaries, signaled Roosevelt that he would not attack him over the deal. It is believed that Willkie’s unexpected support broke the back of Congressional opposition, and  gave FDR the courage to go through with the transaction. (Later, Willkie would support Lend-Lease as well.)

Even a larger controversy loomed regarding a proposed peace-time conscription, which Roosevelt believed was essential. It would be the first such draft in U.S. history, and, again, much of the public was hostile to the idea.  Facing re-election, Roosevelt was being coy about the topic. Then Willkie, against the advice of key aides, gave a speech in which he supported the President on the need for a  military draft. When the selective service bill passed the next month, Sen. Hiram Johnson said that Willkie had “broken the back” of the draft opposition.

The GOP candidate easily could have wielded popular opposition to the draft as a weapon against his Democratic opposition; remember, Pearl Harbor was more than a year away. And the United States might have been fatally unprepared when December 7, 1941 came. Charles Peters, in his historical account of Willkie’s campaign, “Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How it Freed F.D.R. to Save the Western World,” relates what Willkie said when he was challenged on his decision to support Roosevelt rather than enhance his own chances of winning the White House. Referring to his epitaph,  the defeated nominee said,

“If I could choose between ‘Here lies an unimportant President,’ and “Here lies [a man] who contributed to saving freedom at a moment of great peril,” I would prefer the latter.”‘

“If we can understand how and why people rose to their best,” Peters comments, “then maybe we can make it happen again.”

I’m not so sure. The lessons of history are increasingly unknown to modern day Americans, and ruthless pursuit of power and personal gain has become the seemingly unvarying norm among our political and professional class. There are depressingly few role models like James Beggs and Wendell Willkie to model the ethical behavior they personified, and that must flourish in a successful democracy.


Sources: Washington Monthly, New York Times

[A special thanks to commenter Wayne, who caught and flagged a stupid error best explained by my neurologist, in which I twice used 1936 instead of the correct date, 1940.]

11 thoughts on “Before The Rot Set In: Wendell Willkie And James Beggs [Corrected]

  1. I’ve long wondered whether the professionalization of running for elective office (and being in political office) as a result of people studying political science (so-called) and becoming paid political consultants doesn’t parallel the professionalization of business as a result of people getting MBAs and becoming business consultants, both of which developments have made politics and business both “winner takes all” enterprises.

    • That’s part of it, although politics has never been fought with Marquess of Queensberry rules. I think another part of it is when the political class stopped giving a damn about what was good for the American people and started concentrating on what was good for them. FDR may have governed as an elected king, but, at least once WW2 started, he was trying to do the best for the US. I think a lot of it started with LBJ’s attempt to raise a “great society” to keep the blacks voting Democrat and his mismanagement of the Vietnam War as much to appease his own ego as anything else. Nixon we’ve said plenty about. For a while the country sort of came back together again for the end of the Cold War, but it fractured again after that, and it’s been pulling apart ever since. I still say we could be headed for our own version of the Troubles.

  2. A couple of corrections: Nazi Germany was not involved in any wars in 1936 although with Hitler as chancellor and president the handwriting was on the wall. Also, Wilkie the Republican dark horse candidate and eventual winner of the Republican nomination ran against Roosevelt in 1940, not 1936. He was a fine man though and wound up supporting Roosevelt in the War effort.

    • Oh, rats. That was careless and stupid. I’ll fix those. Thanks. The date was correct in the book title; you’d think that would have tipped me off that I was 4 years off. Changing the date to the correct one fixed everything.

      I’m such an idiot.

    • These are two strong stories about ethics with dash of propriety and humility. All are great allies in life.

      • Who was the last politician you saw display any kind of humility? The best you might hear these days is humblebragging, but most of what you’ll hear these days is arrogance and trash talk.

  3. “1936” things to jump to the forefront of one’s mind:

    FDR was elected to his second term and Engelbert Humperdinck was born.

    • Other major events:

      England defeats the NZ All Blacks for the first time.

      King George V is euthanized with a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine by his personal physician, Lord Dawson. The regicidal act, done partly so the death could be announced in the London Times rather than the less prestigious evening papers, partly because Dawson decided “to determine the end myself” rather than wait for it, partly for the more prosaic reason that he wanted to get back to his busy private practice, is not discovered until his personal journals come to light after his death.

      Nazi Germany reoccupies the Rhineland while Italy takes Ethiopia. Britain and France do nothing.

      First performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

      First appearance of The Phantom, the first superhero to wear a skin-tight costume and a mask. Superman, the most famous of them all, won’t debut for 2 more years.

      Bruno Richard Hauptmann fries for the Lindbergh kidnapping and murder. Although there are later shown to be some holes in the prosecution’s case, the fact that he passed a gold certificate traceable directly to the ransom payment and part of the kidnap ladder was made from a piece of wood missing from his own attic are enough to sustain the conviction.

      Jesse Owens defeats the Nazi super-race myth by winning four gold medals in the summer Olympics. He is subsequently stripped of his amateur status by US officials for accepting endorsement deals without which he would have had to return to poverty. Prominent among them is Avery Brundage, whose outdated views on amateurism and willful blindness toward Eastern Bloc state sponsorship of athletes tarnish the games until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

      Joseph Stalin begins the Great Purge.

      Edward VIII abdicates rather than abandon his mistress Wallis Warfield Simpson.

      You could have a field day with a lot of these events.

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