Madly For Adlai

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AT ABOUT TEN O’CLOCK on a smoggy Wednesday night, July 13, 1960, in the vast inner space of the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the national convention of the Democratic party was ablaze with light, drowned in noise, bubbling with red, white, and blue placards, and reeking with tobacco smoke and the tension of more than ten thousand people. At stake in the next hour or so would be the party’s 1960 presidential nomination, the winner almost certain to oppose Republican Richard Nixon, the incumbent Vice-President, in the fall campaign. At least for the duration of the political season, the Democrats assembled would soon resolve the destiny of one man among several contenders—in all probability, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

These Democrats could be somewhat less conclusive about the fate of the losers. Next day, Thursday, they might offer one of them (the runner-up?) second place on the Democratic ticket; he could also try again for the top spot in four or eight years. The others, including a long list of favorite sons, could look forward to future campaigns. Yet for one exception, as every delegate knew, there would be no tomorrow. This was the oldest of the leading contenders, sixty-year-old Adlai Stevenson, the former one-term governor of Illinois, who had led the party to pitiful but proud national defeat in both 1952 and 1956.

Surely, unless Stevenson were to triumph that Wednesday night, the party could expect no more presidential tries for him. The man was a world-class statesman, despite twin losses to Dwight Eisenhower, and a first-rate public speaker, despite the elitism of his vision, summed up by his slightly patronizing, enormously exhilarating premise, “Let’s talk sense to the American people.” But now, should he lose, as expected by all but a few in that pulsating throng, it would be his last hurrah at best—or his heartrending terminal rejection, at worst, if you were madly for Adlai.

Only not so fast. Politics is the only game besides horseshoes where “almost” counts. For the Democrats in the present instance, should the two-time loser’s candidacy fail, the campaign that brought its hero’s name this far in 1960 still might not be a total loss. Stevenson’s candidacy was powered by more than his ambitions and seemingly doomed nomination strategy; it belonged to a movement that had a life and a political meaning of its own.

The Stevenson campaign of 1960 is only dimly remembered today. Most surveys of the era bury it; the most honorable exceptions, with some warts, are the works of John Bartlow Martin, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Theodore H. White. An early undertaker was Arthur Krock of The New York Times , who, two weeks after the Democratic convention wrote: “At Los Angeles… the attention given to Stevenson was slight and brief.” Most immediate post-mortems praised the man and buried the movement; subsequent memoirs tend to discount the efforts of both as a waste of time that never had a chance.

At first glance any consideration of Stevenson’s name by the 1960 convention would seem to have faced insurmountable obstacles. Stevenson himself had never, flat out, asked for the nomination. Public opinion polls that showed him losing to Nixon discouraged it. Better organized and financed campaigns for the active candidacies of three popular incumbent U.S. senators opposed it. The odds-on favorite, far ahead in delegate strength, was the aggressive young Kennedy; second came the wily Lyndon Johnson of Texas; third, the methodical Stuart Symington of Missouri. And perhaps most important, the party’s hierarchy did not want Stevenson anyway. By nature, political bosses abhor back-to-back double losers. Stevenson’s attraction for party reformers troubled them even more. The sum of it was that Stevenson had more enemies than friends, not so much because he openly opposed both the new men and the old pros as because they opposed what he stood for and seemed to mean in American politics.

Perhaps Walter Lippmann had it right in 1965 when, at the time of Stevenson’s death, he described Adlai’s enemies not as men whom he had injured, because he had not injured anyone. Rather, he wrote, “His enemies were men who recognized that he did not share and was a living reproach to the new imperiousness of our power and wealth, that he was a deeply established American who had no part in the arrogance of the newly rich and the newly powerful and the newly arrived. His presence made them uncomfortable, even abashed, all the more because he was so witty when they were so hot, so elegant when they were making a spectacle of themselves.”

Yet, despite that enmity, Stevenson had become a leading contender once again. Hope for his nomination was still faintly alive as the balloting was about to begin…

THIS MEMOIR WAS written just weeks away from the start of the 1984 Democratic national convention by a Democrat who was there in Los Angeles nearly twenty-five years ago. The fact that the present Democratic party is more open and more representative than it was in the past is, in part, at least, the legacy not only of the man but of the movement that the Democratic convention had to consider that night in 1960. Recalling that convention from the viewpoint of the Stevenson campaign is worthwhile, I think, lest we forget an important aspect of how one of the two great American parties got from there to here.