Eighty years ago this summer, Franklin D. Roosevelt was torn about breaking precedent and seeking a third term as president. He did not believe his successor, Democrat or Republican, would be able to steer the country past the shoals of involvement in the war being waged in Europe and on the U.K. by Hitler because he did not think there would be any steering past them. Failure to fight for Britain would mean having to fight Germany in the Western Hemisphere. It was an unpopular position. He was lucky that his Republican opponent in 1940, Wendell Willkie, was not another isolationist, which let Roosevelt campaign on achievements of the New Deal such as Social Security and unemployment insurance.
But there was a part of FDR that was sincere about wanting to leave. He dreamed of building a fishing lodge in the Florida Keys where he would retire with his closest aide, Harry Hopkins, and got as far as scouting for land, which was available after the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 recarved the Keys; and designing a hurricane-proof home.
By 1944, when he decided to seek a fourth term, not only was the U.S. fully involved in the war, but after many reversals the tide was turning in the Allies’ favor. In June, they had secured the Normandy beachheads, and in the Philippine Sea, the U.S. Navy downed more than 200 Japanese planes while losing just 29 to enemy action.
That month, the Republicans gathered in Chicago for their convention. Willkie had been in the race again until he lost the Wisconsin GOP primary, bested by Pacific theater commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur and by prosecutor and New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, who went on to win the nomination.
Dewey was able. He was also compactly built and dapper. The GOP convention ended June 28. On June 29, The (Baltimore) Sun published, on page 4, a throwaway story about Dewey’s triumph, with this paragraph: “Among the party dignitaries gathered to greet him at the airport was Arizona’s national committeewoman, Mrs. Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms, who enthusiastically called Dewey ‘the little bridegroom on every wedding cake.’ He wore, however, none of the formal toggery associated with such sugary figurines. His garb instead was a neat gray business suit, white shirt and dark red tie.”
That was all it took. Soon every Democratic insider was calling Dewey “the little man on the wedding cake” and he nearly drowned in dismissal.
The Democrats also gathered in Chicago for their convention that summer, on July 19. FDR insisted he wanted to oversee the peace for which he had fought. He was scarcely challenged, but conservative party leaders wanted Henry Wallace dropped as vice president because he was too far left, too woo-woo, too much a friend of labor. They pushed for and got Sen. Harry Truman instead, a World War I veteran and Missouri machine politician.
FDR was in the South Pacific conferring with MacArthur when the convention took place. It was the last time in the 20th century that a party’s presidential nominee did not attend the convention, a tradition FDR began in 1932.
On July 20, 1944, he was easily nominated for a fourth term. Truman won on a second ballot over Wallace by a 10-to-1 margin.
Three months after FDR’s fourth inauguration, he was dead of a brain hemorrhage at 63.
Sam Jackson of Indiana, who served in the Senate in 1944 for nine months by appointment and who fought to get Truman on the ’44 ticket, returned to his law practice in Fort Wayne and died in 1951, but not before he left instructions for what he wanted his tombstone to say: “Here lies the man who stopped Henry Wallace from becoming president of the United States.”