Elections are all different, but the election of 2020 was unique: The incumbent, Donald Trump, lost in the Electoral College as well as in the popular vote, but has refused to concede and dispatched a team of lawyers to claim, without evidence, a fraudulent election.
Eighty years ago, in November 1940, a far more critically important election took place. That year, a worldwide military and moral catastrophe was unfolding, threatening democracies around the world as well as the survival of civilization itself.
On the eve of the election, the two candidates, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and Republican Wendell Willkie, both men of outstanding character and integrity, took to the radio and addressed Americans. Their messages were strikingly similar; they spoke about their reverence for democracy, its beauty, its political and moral power — and its fragility.
What a gift it was that Americans were free to choose their own leaders who, F.D.R. said, “become in turn only the instruments to carry out the will of all the people.” In his usual homey tone, he pictured Americans seeing friends at the polls and chatting about the state of the nation, the weather and the odds for their favorite football teams. But then the president struck a more serious tone. Democracy, he said, was more than just a word. “It is a living thing — a human thing — compounded of brains and muscles and heart and soul.” He described democracy as a collective enterprise, the creation of “every man and woman who loves freedom and serves the cause of freedom.”
His opponent, an intelligent, charming and successful businessman from Indiana, had an equally stirring message about citizens’ political and moral responsibility for the health and vitality of their republic. “Democracy cannot be neglected,” Willkie said. “It doesn’t just take care of itself. You, the citizens of it, must take care of it.”
Willkie lost the election and took it hard. FDR had won by 8 percentage points. The morning after election day, Willkie sent a terse congratulatory telegram to the president in Hyde Park. “I know that we are both gratified that so many American citizens participated in the election. I wish you all personal health and happiness. Cordially, Wendell L. Willkie.”
Fortunately, Willkie had no appetite for nursing his wounds or criticizing FDR. The campaigns and the election “left no scars past healing and no unsportsmanlike recriminations,” a Washington Post reporter wrote. “Americans know how to close ranks.”
Willkie was eager to close those ranks, and in so doing, he offered the United States and the world a lesson in character. On Nov. 11, Armistice Day, he addressed Americans on the radio. His message was about the unity and purpose of the nation and the contributions that he and his fellow Republicans could make. “We have elected Franklin Roosevelt president. He is your president. He is my president,” Willkie said. He hoped that the GOP would not oppose FDR’s policies for the divisive and damaging sake of opposition. It was, he said, more productive to propose for, than to oppose against.
Over the next four years, Willkie contributed to the American war effort in every way he could — from vigorously supporting the Lend-Lease Act that supplied Britain with war materiel to defend itself against the Nazi onslaught to serving as FDR’s unofficial ambassador, traveling around the world, speaking to heads of state, assessing their problems and needs. In 1943, he published a bestselling book about his observations and experiences. Its title, “One World,” hit the mark; it was an ode to international interdependence and a rebuke to the isolationists’ “America First” stance. Roosevelt later remarked that Willkie was “a godsend to this country when we needed him most.”
Throughout his campaign and since his election, Joe Biden has also been eloquent about his belief in an inclusive, united nation; in the importance of citizens’ respect for one another and for the institutions of their government; and especially in the importance of always protecting American democracy and nourishing the soul of the nation.
May we hope that American politicians and citizens will now also close ranks and, for the sake of the soul and the future of America, demonstrate character above all.