- Historic Sites
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
Stevenson had more difficulty in making up his. He finally gave a rather miserable positive answer five minutes before the deadline that Arvey had calmly set him. There was a good objective reason for his doubt. It was federal, not state, politics that interested him. But there were probably subjective factors, too. He always liked to be pressed to do a job rather than to seek it. To accept a bone that he had been tossed was not easily compatible with this stance.
Nevertheless it was, of course, a sizable bone. Illinois was a great state, and the governorship, with its tradition of Altgeld, a great office. In the past, at least, it had counted for more than the Senate. It took him back to his family roots. And as the campaign wore on he became captivated by the power and personality of a state that was almost a country.
“There’s an important difference, it seems to me, between Communism as we view it and Communism as some of the Asian peoples view it. When we think of Communism we think of what we are going to lose. When many of the Asiatics think of Communism they think of what they are going to gain—especially if they believe that they have nothing to lose.” —1952
The nomination was far from equivalent to election. Stevenson’s opponent was Dwight Green, who had been governor since 1940. He had started as a reformer, but he and his administration had deteriorated into lethargy and corruption. Green was nevertheless a considerable figure who, right up to the Republican convention, was a real possibility for either position on his party’s national ticket. His defensive position looked reasonably strong.
Stevenson’s campaign ran well but not easily. The machine, having tossed him the nomination, left him on his own until the last few weeks. His amateurs were enthusiastic but not very efficient. And his rich friends proved less forthcoming with their money than they had earlier suggested. He was occasionally down almost to his own resources. His speaking was at first rather hesitant and overprepared. Later the overpreparation did not show through, but it continued to occupy a great deal of his time and meant that his set-piece speeches could not be as thickly surrounded by handshaking expeditions as his supporters wished.
But he seemed to be making an impact upon the voters. His favorite campaign phrase was “I am not a politician, I am a citizen.” By the eve of the election his prospects had clearly advanced well beyond the ten-to-one chance that was all he had been allowed in the summer. But his supporters were far less confident than he was himself.
In the event he won a landslide victory, with a record majority of more than a half million.
By his 1948 victory Stevenson established himself as a vote getter in a key state. It remained to be seen what he would make of the governorship of Illinois. The next four years gave him the only opportunity of his life for the exercise of major executive responsibility. They are therefore important in any evaluation of how good a President he would have made.
He worked extremely hard. In part this was a reaction to the breakup of his marriage after nine months at Springfield. This left him somewhat lonely in the Executive Mansion, oversized in its pre-Civil War gingerbread style. Yet he was not alone. His sister and her retired diplomat husband soon moved in. He had a lot of friends, whom he was frequently with there or elsewhere. And he was surrounded by a devoted staff, mostly of young Chicago lawyers, with whom he was on easy and intimate terms. It was not absolute loneliness but more a desire to prove himself by public success to compensate for private failure. “I have failed as a husband. I have failed as a father. I will succeed as a governor,” he rather overdramatically told his sister when, late one night, she tried to drag him away from his office.
Yet the keynote of his administration was certainly not demonic. It was far too urbane for that. He rarely lost his temper. He was confronted with a difficult legislature: a bare but fairly corrupt Democratic majority in the house, a Republican one in the state senate. He eschewed deals, sometimes quite respectable ones, but maintained relations with all who could help him and resorted to occasional polite and moderately effective public admonition. He got two-thirds of his legislative program through, but the last third contained many of the most important measures.
If the legislature frustrated some of his bills, so he frustrated some of theirs. He was one of the most elegant drafters of veto messages in the history of American executive office. This elegance reflected itself in his speaking style, which became firmly established during these years. It was self-deprecatory, evocative, and literary, and it raised the sights of most of his audiences without disappearing over their horizons. He did not hold them by flashing eye or stirring populism, but he caressed them with a persuasive high-mindedness without in most instances causing a deep unease. He did not shock his listeners, but he tried hard to explain to them the more difficult issues.