Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008

Henry Wallace

A colleague once described Henry Wallace as "a person answering calls the rest of us don't hear." Wallace did indeed feel a calling: the Iowa-born son of a former agriculture secretary declared his greatest aspiration was "to make the world safe for corn breeders." Despite his unconventional pedigree and the rest of his party's fervent opposition to his selection, Wallace was shoehorned into office by F.D.R., who made his running mate an economic policy czar and a key foreign emissary. Though he was a ardent believer in mankind's inherent goodness, Wallace couldn't elicit goodwill from his colleagues, many of whom found his mystical approach toward religion — he dabbled in ideologies ranging from Catholicism to Zoroastrianism — a bit unsettling.

In 1944, the Democrats bypassed Wallace to select Harry S. Truman as their vice-presidential nominee. Wallace was named Secretary of Commerce, where he feuded bitterly with Truman — who had by then ascended to the Oval Office — over the nation's confrontational posturing with the Soviet Union, which the agricultural expert deemed dangerously hawkish. The clash earned Wallace a reputation among his detractors as a "Stalinist stooge." Alienated but undeterred, he mounted a run for the presidency in 1947. One writer later termed his candidacy "the closest the Soviet Union ever came to actually choosing a president of the United States." Not that Wallace posed much of a threat: he garnered zero electoral votes. Chagrined, he retired from politics and spent many of his remaining days tinkering with egg and corn yields on his New York farm.

By Alex Altman