Adlai Stevenson

The Book of the Week is “Adlai Stevenson, His Life and Legacy, A Biography” by Porter McKeever, published in 1989.

Born into a cultured, literate, wealthy family in February 1900 in Los Angeles, CA, the subject of this tome was named after his grandfather, Adlai (“Ad-lay”). The family, which lived primarily in Bloomington, IL ran farms inherited from their ancestors. Stevenson had an overprotective mother: “…she would pick up Adlai in her electric car to ‘rescue’ him from his ‘rowdy’ companions.”

Stevenson’s interest in politics was sparked in 1912 by his meeting presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson when his family summered in New Jersey. Besides that, his father was a politician in Illinois.

Stevenson volunteered to serve in the Army toward the end of WWI. Upon graduation from Princeton University, he attended Harvard Law School under the duress of his father, but failed out after a year. He next went to work for the family’s newspaper, then returned to school and graduated. He became a workaholic in Chicago for the next three decades. Sadly, he hardly ever saw his three sons, born in the early Depression years, and his wife, who developed paranoid schizophrenia.

Stevenson was appointed to various diplomatic positions in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. By 1948, in a pleasant surprise, he was elected by a large margin, Democratic governor of Illinois. His strong suit was peace negotiations, and civil rights advocacy.

If anyone in the last hundred years in American politics had a reputation for honesty, it was Stevenson. He truly “drained the swamp”– eliminated partisan patronage in Illinois law enforcement. He gave teachers a raise, funded highway maintenance, and enacted desegregation in various areas, among other liberal causes.

Despite Stevenson’s intellect, eloquently expressed prophetic insights, and sense of humor– his non-competitive temperament meant that his supporters had to push him hard to run for president in 1952. And they did. So when he lost to Eisenhower, he wasn’t particularly aggrieved. In fact, he congratulated his opponent.

Nevertheless, he took the big bucks that “Look” magazine paid him to write a series of articles on his travels in Europe and Asia. Speech making and selling compilations of his speeches were also lucrative for him. He was then able to honestly pay off his campaign debt of $800,000.

By 1954, Stevenson conveyed to the world what he had learned: “Nations and peoples do not respond like unthinking dominoes. But it took a terrible toll of lives and treasure to find that out, and there is great uncertainty that the lesson has yet been really learned.” The aggressors and colonialists in the world’s hot spots were bad at “Vietnamization” even then.

On the Cold War home front, “… Eisenhower was willing to pay the price of sacrificed careers and political turmoil for the votes of pro-McCarthy senators.” The upshot of this was that a few thousand federal employees were fired, of 72 million, for being potential subversives, but only one true Communist was found.

By 1954, even the Republicans agreed with Stevenson that McCarthy had to go. Two years later, popular as ever among young, idealistic voters, but still more focused on trying to influence long-term policy than achieve personal gain, Stevenson explicitly said he did not want to run for president again. But he did. Even though in private he yelled at someone, “Campaigning like this makes a whore out of you!”

In January 1960, Stevenson met with Soviet ambassador Mikhail Menshikov, who gave him a handwritten note from Khrushchev saying the USSR fervently hoped that Stevenson would run for president that year; they wanted him more than anyone else to lead the United States. Stevenson declined to run.

Even so, as though to tease competing candidates John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Stuart Symington– Stevenson appeared at the Democratic National Convention anyway. Thousands of his supporters were still hoping to rally sufficient delegates to get him nominated as the final Democratic candidate.

Read the book to learn of the major changes in American politics that Stevenson made, and much more.