Adultery’s Golden Age

When the press went to bed with Wendell Willkie.

Times certainly do change. During this last presidential election, the press went to DEFCON 2 over a rumored sexual liaison between candidate John Kerry and an intern with the Associated Press—a story no one dared ignore despite the salient fact that it turned out not to be true. It was different during the first half of the 20th century, when reporters tended to ignore the sex lives of presidential candidates. How different is made clear in Five Days in Philadelphia, an account of the 1940 Republican convention—the one that, pace Philip Roth, did not make the Nazi-sympathizing aviator Charles Lindbergh its presidential nominee—by my friend and former boss Charles Peters.

Peters’ thesis is that Willkie’s nomination was vitally necessary, and not just because of the (relatively improbable) scenario worked out by Roth. Even the nomination of a more respectable isolationist like Robert Taft or Arthur Vandenberg, or of the semi-isolationist Thomas E. Dewey—all three candidates were very much in play—would likely have made it extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, for President Roosevelt, in an election year, to send Great Britain 50 destroyers that it desperately needed to deter an imminent Nazi invasion. The nomination of Taft or Vandenberg or Dewey would also have been an obstacle to Roosevelt’s instituting the peacetime draft that helped the United States ready itself for its entry into the war a year later. So Willkie it had to be.

But Willkie had a mistress. So did Roosevelt, of course. But what’s striking about Willkie’s adulterous affair is how brazen it was. The press didn’t just know about Willkie’s affair; the press, in the person of Irita Van Doren, editor of the Herald TribuneBook Review and a member of the paper’s board of directors, participated in the affair.

Far from being a liability, Willkie’s relationship with Van Doren (the ex-wife of Carl Van Doren, biographer of Benjamin Franklin, and aunt by marriage to Charles Van Doren, the subsequent quiz-show scandal celebrity) was an enormous asset:

Not only did she introduce him to New York’s literary and intellectual world—including such prominent figures as James Thurber, Dorothy Thompson, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg, and her brother-in-law the poet, critic, and teacher Mark Van Doren—but Irita also helped him write his magazine articles and speeches. “You would never let me write anything,” Willkie once told her, “which would be subject to the slightest criticism by the most fastidious of critics.”

It isn’t hard to imagine Bill Clinton feeling very sorry for himself while reading this. As for the current president, I leave the final word to Gore Vidal: “[I]magine George W. Bush even knowing the name of Michiko Kakutani.”