In Five Days in Philadelphia (PublicAffairs, $26), Charles Peters makes a grand claim for the 1940 Republican political convention: In nominating Wendell Willkie for president, the convention, as the subtitle would have it, "Saved the Western World." These were the interwar days when Republicans tended to be isolationists and Willkie, a utilities executive, stood out by virtue of his internationalist outlook. (In January 1940, Peters recalls, former president Herbert Hoover, a Republican, was asked what the United States should do if Hitler threatened the existence of England and France. This, he scoffed, was "too impossible an event to warrant comment.") A rival for the nomination was Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, whom Peters describes as "brilliant, relentlessly honest, but often stubborn and often wrong." Also tetchy, as indicated by his reaction to a dinner-party exchange: When Willkie said he would vote to re-elect incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt rather than a Republican who refused to help Britain and France against Germany, Taft "exploded." Could he have sensed that this upstart would inspire a groundswell of enthusiasm, win the nomination and help ensure the success of policies that Taft abhorred -- even while losing the general election to Roosevelt?

Peters, the founding editor of the iconoclastic Washington Monthly, notes that Willkie's presidential bid might easily have come a cropper: He sometimes drank too much and was having an adulterous affair. But this was not an era when the press ran every titillating rumor to ground, and Willkie went unscathed, as did Roosevelt, who was doing some philandering of his own. The happenstance that France surrendered to Germany during the GOP's convention week is probably what put Willkie's cause across. Peters concludes: "I am reminded of a play by Thornton Wilder about how mankind survives. It's called The Skin of Our Teeth."

-- Dennis Drabelle