October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
If there was a fault of form, it was a lack of a hard structure of logical argument. He shone shafts of light and wit into most subjects, but he did not relentlessly take the subjects apart and then put them together again in his own mold. His speeches were isolated works of art rather than stations on a line along which he wished to travel. He half acknowledged this when, at the end of his political career, he was introducing John Kennedy in California: “Do you remember,” he said, “that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke,’ but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, ‘Let us march’ ?”
Stevenson’s reputation increased steadily throughout his period as governor. He gave the state better government in a nonideological way. He took the highway police and some other agencies out of politics. He got better men to accept public appointments. He vastly improved the provision for mental health. As his term went on, his national publicity grew into a favorable flood. He was clearly of Presidential quality.
Yet he did not want to be a candidate in 1952. He wanted to go on as governor. This was partly out of shrewdness and partly out of modesty. Once he realized that Elsenhower was likely to be the Republican candidate, he did not believe that with twenty years of office round their necks the Democrats could win. He also had some doubt about his own fitness for the supreme office. And to this he added a special fastidiousness about taking the plunge into full and lasting fame. “I can’t bear the possibility of never really being alone again,” he told a friend, “of never, as long as I live, being unidentified, of never again being a private person.” Accordingly, when Truman summoned Stevenson to Washington in January, 1952, and offered him Presidential support for the nomination, Stevenson said No. But the Stevenson boom continued to grow.
The convention assembled in Chicago in mid-July. On the Sunday Stevenson met the Illinois delegation and reiterated his reluctance: “I ask … that you all abide by my wishes not to nominate me, nor to vote for me if I should be nominated.” On the Monday he went some way to neutralize this by a welcoming speech, which as governor of the home state it naturally fell to him to make and which was perfectly phrased to arouse the enthusiasm of the delegates. One act of self-discipline that he could not impose upon himself was deliberately to make a bad speech.
On the Thursday his name was placed in nomination by the governor of Indiana. On the Friday balloting began. On the third ballot he was quickly pushed over the required total.
It was the only draft in American history apart from that of Garfield in 1880, and that was on the thirty-sixth ballot. But even Stevenson’s took a little time. When it had happened, but only then, he accepted Truman’s sponsorship. He entered the convention hall with the President and was presented to the delegates by him. His acceptance speech contained some notable passages, both of phrase and of substance, although, oddly, the style in places now reads a little floridly. But the central message was clear: Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains. … The people are wise- wiser than the Republicans think. And the Democratic Party is the people’s party, not the labor party, not the farmers’ party—it is the party of everyone. That, I think, is our ancient mission. Where we have deserted it, we have failed. With your help there will be no desertion now. Better we lose the election than mislead the people; better we lose than misgovern the people.
Stevenson had set his own style for the campaign, except that there were no jokes on this occasion. He would make a high-minded, nonpartisan appeal, stressing America’s world role and world duty. His reluctance right to the last moment was no doubt genuine. Had it been a calculated cloak for a relentless, unvarying ambition, it would have required not merely a degree of self-deceit that was alien to his character but also a monumental nerve and selfconfidence that were equally unlike him.
At the same time there was an element of a two-way bet about his behavior. Maybe he was not equipped for the Presidency. In any event, 1956 might be a better year. But if he was to be the candidate in 1952, he had to be on his own terms. He had to be free of at least some part of Truman’s legacy. He had to fight, not as an heir, but as someone who would introduce a new spirit into Washington. His reluctance lost him Truman’s friendship but gave him as much of this freedom as it was possible for any Democrat to achieve.
It did not give him victory. Eisenhower was ahead at the beginning and remained so throughout. Probably it could not have been otherwise. Eisenhower was as near to unbeatable as it was possible to be. His combination of folksiness and reassurance was immensely appealing to Middle America. It made him impervious to Stevenson’s higherminded, more articulate campaign.