Something my younger son, Luke, and I have been doing lately is going on long walks in the evening to stretch our legs and get away from our screens. Not long ago we had crossed through Bryant Park and were homeward bound along 41st Street. There I noticed on the south wall of the NY Public Library a large metal plaque. Wondering what it was I looked and saw that it was a tribute to Wendell L. Willkie.
If Willkie is remembered at all, it is as the loser of a Presidential election. In 1940 he was the Republican nominee to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was seeking an unprecedented third term in office. One reason why Willkie lost was that he failed to distinguish his platform from Roosevelt’s. On certain critical issues Willkie publicly agreed with FDR, specifically, sending military aid to embattled Britain. No serious historian today would argue the merits of abandoning England in their time of need, but at the time, isolationists were a strong political force in America. Willkie could have compromised what he knew was right and sided with them in order to garner more votes. He didn’t. He saw and served the greater good, even at the expense of his own opportunity to occupy the White House.
Wendell Willkie did a second extraordinary thing. After losing the election in November of 1940, by January of 1941 he was in the White House, meeting with the President, and agreeing to be FDR’s personal envoy to Great Britain. Willkie was able to put personal ambition and disappointment aside, and work with the politician who defeated him. Why? Because the times were urgent.
Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers is famously quoted as saying, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” What a disastrous and destructive motto when you think about it. Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a person who understands the importance of grace and class. Show me a good loser and I’ll show you someone who is able to let go of what might have been and embrace what will be. Show me a good loser and I’ll show you Wendell Willkie, a flawed human being like the rest of us, but one who demonstrated personal qualities that are not unrelated to life in Christ.
When I was out on my walk with Luke I snapped a photo of the plaque to Wendell Willkie. If you happen to be on 41st Street, take a look for yourself. It seems to me his example is a good one to remember in our urgent times.
See you in church.