Adlai Stevenson


This was still his status when he arrived at the Los Angeles convention. His supporters had been there before him, working hard. There was no doubt that they were running him as a candidate, whatever he was doing himself. The Kennedy bandwagon was rolling fast, but it was still short of a first-ballot victory, and it was at that stage arousing more professional admiration than popular enthusiasm. Many thought that if Stevenson would give a clear lead and set alight the latent flames of nostalgic affection and respect that were smoldering in the hearts of many delegates, the convention could still be turned.

There were a number of occasions when he might have done this. He refused them all. Yet he allowed his name to be placed in nomination. Indeed he actually suggested the proposer, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. It was an excellent choice—but for what purpose?—and pro- duced the greatest oratorical feat of the week. “Do not turn away from this man,” McCarthy said. “Do not reject this man who has made us all proud to be Democrats.”

Meanwhile Stevenson had already started work on a speech introducing John Kennedy to a postconvention rally. Altogether it was a most mystifying week’s performance. It was certainly not calculated to endear him to the Kennedy camp. He had taken too much of the gilt off their gingerbread for that. Nor did he make it easy for his friends. Yet they did not revolt or even complain. Their springs of loyalty and affection were too deep.

“Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty—so, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom.” —1954

This was the last week of his political career. It had lasted twelve and a half years. Thereafter everything was, not bathos, but anticlimax. Stevenson accepted the ambassadorship to the United Nations, sweetened by the rather meaningless prestige symbol of Cabinet membership.

For Kennedy it was a brilliant appointment. Stevenson discharged his duties with flair and imagination. It was no longer his own standard, but that of an administration with which he was not wholly in sympathy, that he carried. But he did it with most of his old distinction. He continued to foster world respect for the United States. But he again paid a price. He was under instructions. He defended causes in which he did not believe. He was no longer his own man. He lived in luxury and esteem at the top of the Waldorf Towers. He used his eloquence. He was warmly welcoming to the delegates of the emergent nations. He saw his old friends and went to too many parties. He thought of resigning and trying to run for the Senate but did not do so. It was certainly not the happiest period of his life. And then it all ended on a July afternoon in a Mayfair street.

Stevenson, with the possible exception of Bryan, was the most famous unsuccessful candidate in American history. By definition, therefore, he was a failure in his central purpose. But he inspired a generation. And he influenced the world view of the United States more than any other politician who never handled the levers of full power.

“Oh, what I would really like is just to sit in the shade with a glass of wine in my hands and watch the dancers.” —1965