scorecardresearch Skip to main content

America needs more politicians like John Gilbert Winant

The three-term Republican governor of NH, FDR appointee, and ambassador to the UK put country ahead of party and was the soul of integrity. Let’s hope his kind hasn’t been consigned to history.

John Gilbert Winant photographed by Harris & Ewing photographers on Jan. 1, 1937, when he was chair of the Social Security Board.Library of Congress


A whisper in the ear of presidential candidates: Next time you’re in New Hampshire, do yourself and the country a favor — take a short detour and drive down Park Street in Concord to the state library.

There, just steps from the state Capitol, you will encounter a life-size bronze statue of a figure who was bigger than life but whose name has slipped from the nation’s memory: John Gilbert Winant.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Winant, a three-term governor of New Hampshire, would enter his governor’s office, his shirt damp from what we now call a wintry mix, his topcoat given away to someone he encountered on the way to the Capitol. He assumed the medical bills of the indigent and out of his own pocket paid for meals for the homeless.


John Gilbert Winant in an undated photo.Library of Congress

He was a Republican appointed by a Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to be the first chairman of the Social Security Board. When, in the 1936 presidential campaign, the program became a flashpoint for Republican criticism, Winant resigned his post and defended Social Security against the furies coming from his own party. FDR later named Winant to the most important diplomatic post in the country: ambassador to the United Kingdom. Winant put country ahead of party. He was the soul of integrity. He was quiet but forceful. He was what America needed then. Someone like him is what America needs now.

No name-calling. No prevarication about right and wrong. No howling invective. No demonizing or diminishing his rivals. No picking on the vulnerable. A practitioner of reform, not revenge. And this: nonpartisan.

For all his triumphs, though, Winant’s life was not a sunny idyll. His hopes to become FDR’s bipartisan running mate were dashed. After Roosevelt’s death, his wish to become the first secretary general of the United Nations also came to nothing. He was estranged from his wife and felt distanced from his political party. And he remained shadowed by a failed affair with Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah, whom he had wanted to marry. Years after their liaison, Sarah, herself in an unhappy marriage, wrote about Winant as this “love affair which my father suspected but about which we did not speak.”


Disconsolate, debt-ridden, and depressed, Winant took his own life in November 1947, two years after the end of the war.

“It is a terrible thing to consider about our postwar world,” England’s Manchester Guardian wrote, “that John Gilbert Winant could no longer bear to live in it.”

Winant would have been all but forgotten nationally had it not been for Lynne Olson, the historian who sketched a vivid portrait of him in her 2010 book “Citizens of London.” Olson wrote that when Winant departed London after his years as ambassador there, “the outpouring of love and gratitude was nothing short of astonishing,” exceeding even the adulation offered to broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. “Despite the disheartening outlook for their country,” Olson wrote, “the British people had not lost sight of the fact that, thanks in no small part to the U.S. ambassador, the Anglo-American alliance had held together to win the war.”

From left, John Gilbert Winant, ambassador to the UK, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Secretary of State Edward H. Stettinius Jr, and FDR's trusted deputy Harry Hopkins, on the USS Quincy Feb. 14, 1945.National Museum of the US Navy

The double stigma of suicide and depression prevented Winant’s burial at St. Paul’s School, where he had been both student and teacher and where, when he departed to become a World War I airman, he left behind a pile of unpaid bills, most of which were for purchasing milk for poor families. Finally in 1968, his body was reinterred on the campus, where his gravestone carries his own words:


“Doing the day’s work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases wanting not only for ourselves but for others also, a fairer chance for all people everywhere. Forever moving forward, always remembering that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts and that where there is no vision the people perish. That hope and faith count and that without charity, there can be nothing good. That having dared to live dangerously, and in believing in the inherent goodness of man, we can stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence.”

So to the 2024 White House candidates: Hope to be president, to be sure. But, more important, hope to earn an epitaph like that.

David Shribman, previously the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.