Adlai Stevenson


He did not return to the law until 1954. The substantial office that he set up in Chicago was for the practice of politics. He travelled a lot, he spoke a lot. He remained in the news. His speeches were at first directed mainly to foreign affairs and were a little bland. They achieved more effect when he turned to a hard domestic issue. His attack on McCarthyism at Miami Beach in March, 1954, made a significant contribution to the turning back of that malign tide. This was followed by a notably successful part in the midterm elections of the following autumn. In six weeks he spoke in thirty-four states, and his speeches had more bite than in 1952. The Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress. It was a considerable victory and improved both Democratic morale and Stevenson’s stock.

But it did not mean that Elsenhower was dangerously vulnerable for 1956. He was always able to ride above the misfortunes of his party as well as the mistakes of his administration. And the collapse of McCarthy closed a Republican flank. If Stevenson had reason to be hesitant about 1952, he had still more reason for hesitancy in 1956. There were obvious attractions in missing a turn and waiting to run against a new Republican in 1960. He was unlikely to be forgotten.

“When I was a boy I never had much sympathy for a holiday speaker. He was just a kind of interruption between the hot dogs, a fly in the lemonade.” — 1952

To these attractions he was impervious. He did not push himself hard or prematurely, but by 1955 he made it obvious that he wanted the nomination. And this time he had to work hard for it. At the convention, again in Chicago, he was comfortably nominated on the first ballot. But he paid a price for this. The primaries left him tired before the real campaign began. And they also left him a little shop-soiled. There was a new tendency to say, “He’s just another politician.” Altogether the 1956 campaign, although in some ways more professional, lacked something of both the sparkle and the inspiration of 1952. It was intended to be domestically oriented. There was also to be a determined attempt to show Stevenson as a vigorous yet experienced challenger to a President who had been at best half-time and was now manifestly not up to the job.

The strategy failed. Elsenhower was so brilliantly packaged and presented that whenever he got to a television studio, he looked much fitter than his rushed and tired opponent. Stevenson’s attack also got diverted, perhaps by a natural predilection, on to foreign- and defense-policy issues. He demanded an end to H-bomb tests and the replacement of the draft by a professional army. He was almost certainly right on both points, but he totally failed to convince ordinary American opinion that he could be more expert on either than the great General. Then, in the last days of the campaign, the Suez war obtruded sharply.

The strength of the Democrats was that people instinctively associated the Republicans with big business and neglect of the small man at home. The strength of the Republicans was that people instinctively feared that the Democrats were the war party. The diversion of strategy reduced the first strength and increased the second. It helped to produce a victory for Eisenhower still more decisive than that of 1952. Stevenson carried only seven states.

This second defeat was much worse for Stevenson than the first. On the former occasion he had greatly enhanced his reputation. He started the campaign as a successful governor. He ended it as a world figure. And he could husband this reputation and live to fight another day. In 1956 he had gained nothing, and on any likely prognosis he was at the end of the road. Only Clay and Bryan in American history had been allowed third attempts, and Bryan’s were not consecutive.

A month after the election Stevenson issued a formal statement of withdrawal. He would continue to work for the Democratic Party and to warn the American people “against complacency and a false sense of security,” but he would not again be a candidate.

Stevenson was able to keep his imprint on Democratic policy. His stamp remained that of anticomplacency at home and deep commitment abroad.

There is little doubt that as the 1960 election came nearer he became tempted by the prospect of a third try. He would hardly have been human had he felt otherwise. He had devoted some of his best years to fighting when it was not possible to win. For 1960 the prospect looked quite different. Nixon seemed to be emerging as the most likely successor. Stevenson viewed him with strong disapproval verging upon contempt. He was certain he could beat him. Moreover he was constantly told, everywhere he went in the world, that he was the man to whom humanity was looking for the reburnishment of America’s leadership.

He therefore determined on a compromise course. If he was offered the nomination, he would accept it, but he would do nothing to seek it. Right up to the end he appeared to be hovering on the brink of a more positive move. He got appeals, from Mrs. Roosevelt, from Senator Humphrey, from a host of others, to declare himself a candidate. He continued to be available but undeclared.

“I am not an old experienced hand at politics. But I am now seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.” —1956