Oct. 26 2017 12:46 AM

Hendrik Meijer unveils biography of Arthur Vandenberg, decades in the making


Talk about persistence. Hendrik Meijer has been working on the definitive biography of Michigan U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg for more than 27 years. Meijer often found that his day job, as CEO and executive chairman of the Meijer grocery store chain, got in his way of his writing. Vandenberg, a former newspaper editor from Grand Rapids, was a Republican senator from 1928 to 1951.

However, the delay may be the best thing that happened to a book about a politician who began as an isolationist and then forged an across-the aisle consensus to pass legislation creating NATO, the Marshall Plan and the United Nations.

What better time than now to be shining light on the importance of internationalism as the incumbent President espouses an “America First” policy, words that are eerily reminiscent of the isolationism of Vandenberg’s era.

Vandenberg, who began his career as a firebrand editor and then publisher for the Grand Rapids Herald, used his editorial position to espouse a philosophy of protectionism underscored by the folksy “climb the ladder to success.”

Meijer writes in the book “Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century” that “homilies of self-advancement were his oxygen.” Leading up to World War I and during its early stages, Vandenberg, through the voice of his newspaper, would advocate neutrality, until continued German transgressions caused him to become a staunch supporter of the war.

Post World War I, Vandenberg drifted back into isolationism which he continued to defend until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor when he took to the Senate floor to make the “speech heard ‘round the world.”

Despite party differences and being appointed to the Senate in 1928 during Hoover’s reign, Vandenberg would be an on again — off again supporter of President Roosevelt’s alphabet programs. He was primarily responsible for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the first of many far-reaching New Deal programs to pass. The FDIC helped restore confidence in the banking system, and in his book Meijer underscores how, despite Vandenberg’s lead, his role would be lost to history.

Meijer writes: “Vandenberg allowed that the president was entitled to credit … for his vigorous and sympathetic administration of the law.”

Going into Roosevelt’s second term, Vandenberg sought the Republican nomination for Presidency, but Wendell Willkie snagged it. Another blow to Vandenberg was the speculation of his affair with Mitzi Sims, the spouse of an English diplomat. These rumors contributed to his undoing.

Meijer, who early in his career worked as a reporter for two Michigan weekly newspapers, was drawn to the story of Vandenberg.

He soon discovered that a Chicago biographer had already completed the first book of a two-volume set on the senator. Meijer said he decided to shelve his idea, but at the urging of a friend he presented a paper on Vandenberg at a Historical Society of Michigan meeting.

Then, fate intervened. Vandenberg’s biographer died, leaving the second volume unwritten and boxes of research behind. Meijer discovered that the daughter of the Chicago author was anxious to dispose of the research.

“There were tons of files — mostly Xerox copies — and the daughter didn’t want to throw them on the street,” Meijer said. “I brought a van load of files from Chicago, and it saved me weeks and weeks of research in archives. I was able to start interviewing people associated with Vandenberg.”

On and off, Meijer would conduct interviews with key people in Vandenberg’s life, many of whom are now dead, including President Gerald Ford and Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright.

Fulbright, 88 at the time, would tell him “You waited too long to talk to me.”

He would also have access to dozens of scrapbooks and journals kept by Hazel and Arthur Vandenberg. While interviewing the couple’s daughter, Meijer asked about the purported affair and was given a page from one of Hazel’s diaries that had been kept back. It provided the smoking gun.

Meijer said one aspect of Vandenberg’s life that totally surprised him was the Senator’s relationship with Sinclair Lewis, the noted author. In 1922, Lewis had written “Babbitt,” one of the most damning books on American culture and politics. The book became a firestorm and a faceoff between what Meijer calls “middlebrow mediocrity and East Coast know-it-alls.”

Sinclair even went as far as disparaging Vandenberg’s hero, Theodore Roosevelt, whose visage hung in the newspaper editor’s office.

But in 1935, the two would meet on a ship returning from England they would find they had more in common than not.

Lewis’ 1937 book “It Can’t Happen Here” was a veiled piece of fiction about a popular president who turns to fascism. Two characters in the book, the crusading reporter and a young Senator, who take on the demagogue president, “Buzz” Windrip, who uses patriotic principles to justify a fascist regime,” were thought to have been based on Vandenberg.

Meijer’s book suggests the simple idea that one person who steps up and puts the good of the country ahead of the party may be what we need today in these divisive times. Vandenberg was chosen in 2004 to have his portrait hung in the U.S. Senate Reception Room as one of the nation’s most important Senators.

The Library of Michigan and the Historical Society of Greater Lansing are co-sponsoring an appearance by Hendrik Meijer to talk about his written work.

Bill Castanier is the President of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.

Hendrik Meijer book discussion

Wednesday, Nov. 8 6:30 p.m. FREE Library of Michigan 722 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing. Michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan (517) 373-1300