I was a big WWII buff when I was younger. I thought it was just the coolest subject in the world. I read articles and books like it was nobody's business, could rattle off generals and battles like the back of my hand. The centerpiece of my collection of WWII material was a giant LIFE coffeetable book, full of masterful pictures and writings on the whole war.
One thing I remembered from it was a particular description of Wendell Wilkie, the 1940 Republican candidate for President. Wilkie is a relatively forgotten figure in American history--indeed, if not for this passage, I probably would have forgotten him too. I don't remember the exact wording, but the book noted something about how President Roosevelt had to take some unpopular action to gird America against the Nazis, that, if he wanted to Wilkie could have made enormous political hay out of. But "Wilkie saw eye-to-eye with President" on the Nazi threat, and supported him the whole way.
At the time, I wasn't very politically inclined, so my thought was pretty much "that was nice of him," and I moved on. But as I grew older, Wilkie's decision to forgo political gain for the good of the country became more and more amazing. Let's put all the cards on the table here--had Wilkie pushed Roosevelt on this issue, he probably could have won the election in 1940. But the cost would have been the possibly fatal weakening of Great Britain, a decisive Nazi advantage, and oh, probably the murder of several million more Jews.
How many politicians today would make that choice? Maybe if they knew the stakes I laid out, they'd do it. But Wilkie chose his path without the benefit of hindsight.
What I want is for politicians able to transcend politics, to steel themselves against popular pressures and stand for what is right and necessary, to say "no" to advisors salivating over an incumbent or challenger forced into a tough but necessary position, to, in short, behave like a statesman and not like a machine boss. I noted a few before election 2004--although obviously the stakes in their case were much smaller. But they are the inspiring exception to a wholly depressing rule.
So while I wait for the next generation of Wilkie's, I direct you this amazing Washington Monthly article on the courage and fortitude of Mr. Wilkie. Truly, this man was an American hero.