PERSPECTIVE ON POLITICS : Ross Perot, Meet Wendell Willkie : Fifty-two years ago, a maverick candidate spurred by a grass-roots movement challenged a sitting President.

Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University

He called himself "the best gadget salesman in America," and from his corporate headquarters he poked fun at the President by observing that he and the man in the White House had taken office at the same time but his operation was making money while the chief executive's budget was in the red.

He was as implacably hostile to the excesses of big business as he was to bloated government, and it was once said of him that "in any gathering he is about as anonymous and inconspicuous as a buffalo in a herd of range cattle."

Is it Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire mulling a run for the presidency in 1992? No. It is Wendell L. Willkie, born in 1892, who emerged from political obscurity to win the Republican nomination to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. Only eight years before, he had been a staunch Democrat and a vocal supporter of F.D.R.

For those who think that Perot is something totally new in the order of things, for those journalists who like to emphasize the Texan's novelty, and for the established politicians who fear him as they would some new strain of bacillus, it may be instructive to consider the meteoric rise of Wendell Lewis Willkie of Elwood, Ind.

For starters, Willkie was a self-made man. His father had once been a prosperous small-town businessman, but when the natural-gas fields around Elwood gave out, the Willkies had to work hard to maintain their tenuous grip on middle-class life. An artillery officer in World War I, Willkie arrived in France only after the hostilities had ended. Back home, armed with a law degree from Indiana University, he settled in Akron, Ohio, where he quickly developed a reputation as an intrepid defender of the little guy against large institutions.

Having won a stockholder suit against Akron's most powerful corporation, Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., Willkie was called on to reorganize corruption-plagued Ohio Edison. This was a time--the 1920s--when utility companies were run like criminal conspiracies against the public. Willkie went on to New York to perform a similar clean-up for the huge Commonwealth and Southern utility. He became the firm's chief legal officer in 1929--hardly an auspicious time for business success. But Willkie saved the sagging utility giant by persuading consumers to use more electricity and reap the savings from the lower rates that came from higher consumption. Willkie was indefatigable as he pumped the hands of small-town appliance dealers whose sales of washers and refrigerators would increase demand for electric power. This energetic and likable man exuded sincerity and charmed all who met him, but he revealed his calculating side with the observation, "It's an asset to my business to look like an Indiana farmer."

Willkie was also a man without any strong partisan ties. He went to the 1924 Democratic convention as a backer of New York Gov. Al Smith and contributed to Roosevelt's 1932 campaign, but it was Roosevelt's New Deal and the rough handling that it gave to utility holding companies that turned Willkie not into a recognizable Republican but into a leader of a grass-roots movement that mowed down the party regulars and kept the nomination away from such august GOP figures as Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft and New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.

Like Perot, Willkie offered himself for the nomination at the last minute. In January, 1940, only six months before the party conventions, Willkie opened the door to a draft during a speech at Wooster College in Ohio, when he allowed that, "If the nomination were given to me without strings, I would have to accept it. But I won't go out and seek delegates and make two-sided statements. I value my independence." Sound familiar? And when asked by a potential supporter what Willkie was doing to further his campaign, he replied, "Nothing."

But that did not stop a 29-year-old lawyer named Oren Root from circulating a nonpartisan petition on Willkie's behalf. Root's law office was so deluged by calls and flooded with petitions that he quit his practice to become a full-time organizer. But the grass-roots army of loyalists that came to be known as the Willkie Clubs never meshed well with the GOP professionals who had attempted to ambush Willkie at the convention and failed. The general election campaign, accordingly, was a disaster.

Willkie would blurt out statements that were not so much candid as naive. The press nettled him and he became peevish and hostile to journalists. He began making wild accusations against Roosevelt, including a charge that F.D.R. was the sinister force behind the sellout of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis.

But above all, Willkie was such a commanding personality that no one in his circle of advisers ever had the audacity to challenge his decisions. Accustomed to the heel-clicking obedience of subordinates, Willkie was described by an associate as "someone who can dish it out but can't take it."

Ultimately, Willkie was trapped in the contradictions of a man who was more certain of what he did not like than what he did. He advocated sound business practices as an antidote to bureaucratic routines but embraced the crackpot economics of the Townsend Plan for economic stimulus (Long Beach, Calif., physician Francis Everett Townsend proposed a 2% federal business tax to give $200 in scrip to everyone over 60, requiring it to be spent within a month).

Willkie deplored isolationism but praised isolationists. He built a national reputation by savaging the excesses of the New Deal but ended up espousing the most openhanded welfare schemes.

Intriguing as historical parallels may be, however, they can become overdrawn. Ross Perot in 1992 does not have to contend with deep partisan attachments on the part of voters. So, while Willkie felt he needed the legitimacy of a party label to win, being free of any party label in 1992 may actually be an asset.

In one other way, Willkie might be the envy of today's would-be presidents: He managed to conduct his entire campaign without the press ever mentioning that he was having an extramarital affair.

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