In the course of writing a book about Wendell Willkie’s amazing come-from-nowhere victory at the 1940 Republican convention and what it meant for the world, I gradually realized that I was describing a time when the American people–or at least a majority of them–managed in many ways to rise a bit above the usual limits of human nature. Christianity was kinder. Generosity, idealism, and good citizenship came in larger helpings. What made people seem better back then? What was different about this time, as the Great Depression was ending and World War II had begun? Can we learn anything from it that might help us today?

Notice I said, “in many ways.” Not everyone was better in every way. Lynchings still happened. The St. Louis, loaded with Jewish refugees, had been turned away from our shores in 1939. Jobs and educational opportunities were harder to find, not just for blacks and Jews, but for women and Catholics as well.

Idealism–the conviction that Mr. Smith really could go to Washington–motivated the outpouring of volunteers who rallied to Willkie’s cause in 1940. Willkie, a charismatic businessman, had only recently become a Republican. But unlike the other Republican candidates, he was firmly committed to stopping Hitler. His volunteers packed the gallery at the Republican National Convention, chanting, “We want Willkie!” After five exciting ballots, during which Willkie rose from 105 to 429 of the 501 votes needed to nominate, they finally overwhelmed the conservative isolationists who had dominated the party and propelled Willkie to victory on the sixth ballot. This victory was not inconsequential. Had Willkie not won, Hitler might have.

Both Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie supported a military draft, which passed Congress less than two months before the 1940 election. Politicians are ordinarily risk-averse at such a time. But Roosevelt and Willkie had the courage to advocate a draft, even though it was the first in our history to be enacted when the nation was not at war. Even their great leadership would not have been effective, however, if the American people had not had enough of the right stuff to respond. Polls show that more than 60 percent favored the draft. If we had to go to war, they were willing to share the burden. They displayed the same spirit in paying higher and higher taxes as war threatened and then arrived. In 1943, Willkie criticized Roosevelt for not raising taxes more. Can you imagine a Republican doing such a thing today?

To a remarkable degree, we saw ourselves as the same back then. Most Americans born before 1920 came from rural backgrounds. They had no difficulty identifying with the down and out, because they or their friends and family had been there–many quite recently, like the six relatives who slept one after another on our living room couch in the 1930s as they looked for jobs. Their self-image came straight from Norman Rockwell. My father described himself as “an old country boy,” as did Will Rogers, who had died in 1935, but who remained the leading male role model of the era.

People didn’t try to show how different they were. Few knew–or cared to know–about the right wines. Adolescents and their parents did not agonize over the SATs because there were no SATs. Private schools existed, but it seemed like almost everyone went to public schools or parochial schools that were similarly egalitarian. Our favorite sports were professional baseball and high school and college football and basketball, all played in arenas devoid of the luxury sky boxes that separate the people from the privileged today.

Back in 1940, people didn’t worry about getting their kids into the right kindergarten. Today, there is a whole industry devoted to preparing children for kindergarten. An example of what they do comes from The Wall Street Journal‘s June Kronholz:

“Hank is four years old, and among the worries that prompted his mother to enroll him at the Sylvan Learning Center here is this: Hank was behind on his scissor skills.”

Incidentally, Sylvan’s main competition is Kaplan, which is part of The Washington Post corporate empire. Indeed, Kaplan is the company’s biggest profit-maker. Since its success depends on exacerbating the anxieties of the meritocracy, the Post, however distinguished its reporting may be, is in the dubious moral position of encouraging social tendencies that are less than desirable, the most conspicuous of which is an obsession with getting the highest test score and obtaining admission to the most prestigious school–as distinguished from emphasizing wisdom, character, humor, and the actual ability to do a job. It reminds me of The New Yorker and its advertising. No matter how great the editorial content produced by its writers, the fact remains that the magazine’s advertising encourages a kind of consumer snobbery heavily related to the prices of the objects being peddled.

Since middle-class people like my mother and father tended to identify with that the folks back on the farm, that meant they didn’t identify with and try to emulate the rich nearly as much as today’s middle class does. Social snobbery existed, but it was widely ridiculed. Think of the Marx Brothers and their favorite foil, the sanctimonious society lady played by Margaret Dumont.

Christianity was even more dominant as the national religion than it is today. But it was mostly a different kind of Christianity. Although there were extremists like Father Charles Coughlin, who called Roosevelt’s program the “Jew Deal,” the great majority of American Christians resisted efforts to fan their mild anti-Semitism into the kind of hatred Hitler ignited in German Christians. This was due, I think, primarily to two factors. One was the recent experience with Prohibition. If you remembered, as my father did, spending every other Sunday morning not attending religious services but driving up country roads to visit your bootlegger, it was difficult to bring self-righteousness to your religion, and easy to feel merciful to other sinners. When Mother would start to get indignant about some local girl who had strayed, my father would say, “Be human.”

The other major influence on Christianity at that time was Franklin Roosevelt. In a role largely unacknowledged by historians, he served as spiritual leader of his country, or at least as the most notable exponent of its dominant religious beliefs. And he saw the New Deal as applied Christianity. On New Year’s Eve, 1939, Roosevelt, before reading A Christmas Carol to his family gathered around the White House fireside, spoke to the nation by radio. He quoted the Sermon on the Mount and asked that we “pray that we be given the strength to live for others.” Can you imagine such a prayer being uttered by today’s evangelicals? Their focus is on what God can do for them, from saving their souls, to rescuing them from alcoholism, to making them successful in business.

These Americans were not saints, however. They didn’t want to be Scrooge, but they didn’t want to be suckers either. They saw themselves as shrewd businessmen, not easily gulled. So, when Roosevelt sought support for his trade of 50 destroyers to the British in exchange for bases in the Western hemisphere, he portrayed it as a bargain comparable to the Louisiana Purchase.

This distinction between not wanting to be a sucker and not wanting to make a sucker out of others helped explain the two sides of the American character. One is the greedy, lying, cheating snake oil salesmen represented by Mark Twain’s “The King and the Duke.” The other is represented by the down-to-earth common-sensical Huck and Jim, and the decent entrepreneurial Tom. It is one of the blessings of history that when Hitler threatened the world, our good side was ascendant.

Today, the snake-oil salesmen seem to be on top. Many young people have been thinking, that’s just the way things are and have always been. I hope some of them now know better.

Wendell Willkie’s come-from-behind victory in 1940 would not be possible today. Primaries determine the nominee, often before April 1. On the first of April, 1940, Willkie was 0 percent in the polls. But events that happened after that date–the Nazi invasions of Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France–made clear that his firm stand against Hitler was right, and that he would be the best man for the Republicans to nominate.

Wouldn’t it be better if today’s conventions had the same freedom to choose the best candidate? The purpose of the primaries was to make the process more democratic. That end can be attained by having most of the delegates elected, leaving them free to use their best judgment at the convention.

Both Wendell Willkie and Franklin Roosevelt had sex lives that would not have escaped the attention of today’s media. Willkie had many affairs ranging from Madame Chiang Kai-Shek to the Southern writer Josephine Pinckney, the most notable and long-lasting of which was with Irita Van Doren, the book editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Franklin Roosevelt had affairs with Lucy Mercer Rutherford and his secretary, Missy Lehand, and probably with Margaret Suckley, Dorothy Schiff, and Princess Martha of Norway. Lehand lived on the third floor of the White House, and Princess Martha on the second, where Eleanor Roosevelt’s dear friend Lorena Hickok also resided. These were the ingredients of a French sex farce, not to mention headlines in the National Enquirer. Public scrutiny of their romantic adventures would almost certainly have destroyed both Roosevelt and Willkie. They would not have been able to lead the country at a crucial time in its history. Does anyone think that would have been a good thing?

Today, practically everyone in the middle class is building a McMansion, or at least wants to. For a feeling of what the average man wanted in 1940-41, consider an ad from Union Central Life Insurance Company that depicted $200 a month as a generous income.

The ad was a great success because that sum struck most of us as not only more than adequate, but also as all we could reasonably desire. Of course, back then bread was 10 cents a loaf, a new car could be bought for $650, and what is called a starter house today went for $5,000 or so. Still, it is true that not nearly as many people wanted to be rich or wanted to be rich enough to make it their main ambition, as it seems to be for far too many of today’s middle class.

One great difference between now and 1940-41 is that then we were preparing to resist aggressors, having been alarmed by Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia; Japan’s of China; and Hitler’s of Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and France. Today, we are the aggressor. We invaded Iraq.

If there really had been an imminent WMD danger, the invasion might have been justified. But does making Iraq a democracy, although a laudable goal, justify killing thousands of Iraqis and getting a lot of our soldiers killed and wounded? It seems to me that we’ve become entirely too casual about shooting first. Remember, we didn’t declare war against Japan until it had attacked Pearl Harbor or against Germany until Hitler had declared war against us.

Would we have been willing to invade Iraq if we had an army composed of draftees, among whom, say, were the daughters of George W. Bush? The measure of a whole different attitude is that three of Roosevelt’s sons were already in the military by the time of Pearl Harbor.

I’m sure that by now you’ve had enough, probably more than enough, of my reflections on 1940-41. It’s time to move on to more current Tilting fare.

While I must confess that I am delighted to see the White House’s obvious nervousness about what might develop in the investigation into the leaking of Valerie Plame’s identity, I have a word of caution for my fellow liberals. The CIA’s various covers for its agents have been notoriously transparent. We ran an article 30 years ago explaining how easy it was to identify them. The situation has improved little since then. So, I urge liberals to be sure they devote at least as much energy to getting the CIA to do a better job of concealing its agents’ identities as they have been giving to berating the White House for its part in the Plame case.

This magazine has always believed the liberals should not hesitate to join conservatives when the conservatives are right. It strikes me that the conservative objection to the use of eminent domain to seize private property for the benefit of private developers is just such a case. Charlotte Allen, an excellent conservative writer whose work has appeared in these pages, recently reminded readers of The Washington Post of the destruction of working class homes and business that was wrought by urban renewal in the 1950s. These programs, which deservedly came to be called “Negro removal” by their critics, involved just the same kind of taking of private property for exploitation by developers.

Washington mayor Tony Williams took 33 trips last year with a total time absent from his office amounting to at least 83 days. The Washington Post reported that other big city mayors “are rarely away from their cities more than 10 days a year.” Why does Mayor Williams travel so much? Because, he says, it helps boost the city’s image. Last year, Williams found that his city’s image required visits to Barcelona, Beijing, Bangkok, Rome, and Paris, among other destinations. Indeed, the image situation was so dire in Paris that it required two trips.

Worried that the mayor might be neglecting district government business while he’s away? Don’t give it another thought. “It doesn’t matter,” one aide assured the Post, “if he’s in China or upstairs.” Come to think of it, the aide may be just right about that.

The accounting reforms, however laudable, that have been brought about by Sarbanes-Oxley, do not resolve the basic problem of the industry, points out my friend and former colleague, Joseph Nocera, in his column in The New York Times. That problem is the fact that the accountant is paid by the company being audited. As long as this is so, the accountant is going to be tempted to please the fellows who hired him.

A few years back, this column proposed a solution to the problem: have the auditor chosen, not by the company, but by an independent board. The fee could still be paid by the company or, if you want an absolute firewall between them, from a fund contributed to by companies as a percentage of their annual income.

One reason I feel compelled to give history lessons in this month’s column is that too many Americans, even very bright ones, are ignoramuses when it comes to history. “Our children don’t know American history because they are not being taught it,” Sen. Lamar Alexander recently told a congressional hearing. David Broder reports that Florida has enacted a law that allows students to graduate from high school without having been exposed to even one American history course.

Speaking of Florida, does having a governor named Bush mean that the state can get away with leaving some children behind? Last year, according to George W. Archibald of The Washington Times, “77 percent of Florida schools failed to make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind.” Not to worry. The George W. Bush administration has moved the goalposts for the president’s brother. Instead of having to show 48 percent of students are proficient in reading, which hardly sounds too exacting, the goal is now only 37 percent. A similar adjustment was made in math.

Buried in the back pages of a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal was a story of immense importance to a significant segment of this country’s population. “A growing number of states,” including New Jersey, California, Virginia, Florida, and New Hampshire, now require businesses to make toilet facilities available to customers and visitors. The Journal story dealt with the significance of this requirement for small businesses, which convinced me that both the story’s author, Gwendolyn Bounds, and her editors had to be under 65.

Those of us who have passed that milestone would have put this story on the front page, the news ranking in importance with a major medical breakthrough. The reason is that for many of us, almost every day presents a problem of access to toilet facilities because the older you are, the more urgent the urge to go becomes. I carry in my mind a map of the few facilities available as I walk from my office to my car or to a nearby restaurant. Alas, there are some places that turn you away, although the desperate look on my face sometimes softens their stand. Now, if they remain obdurate, I can say that the law is on my side. Although, come to think of it, I better check to see if the D.C. Code is progressive in this regard.

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Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.