October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
The first time I saw Adlai Stevenson was in July, 1953. After the splendid but massive failure of his 1952 campaign he had spent five months travelling, mostly in Asia. He had received world acclaim to set against his national defeat. London was the last stage of his journey. I heard him speak briefly to an all-party House of Commons tea meeting. The chairman introduced him with a somewhat self-conscious impartiality: America was indeed fortunate to have been able to choose between two candidates of the distinction of General Eisenhower and Governor Stevenson.
Stevenson’s reply was less heavily felicitous. I recall it as being brief, graceful, self-deprecatory, and mildly moving. It was not Olympian, but it was agreeable and satisfying. It confirmed me, then a young backbencher with few American contacts, in a simple view that it was a tragedy he had not been elected.
I did not speak to him on that occasion. Nor did I know him until another seven or eight years had passed and he had suffered both the further defeat of 1956, still more overwhelming than the previous one, and, with the nomination and election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, the final elimination of his Presidential hopes. Then in the last four years of his life, when he was a renowned but not altogether happy ambassador to the United Nations, I saw him frequendy. I spoke to him on the telephone an hour before he died. I had sent a message asking him to meet some people at lunch at my house on the following day. He rang back to accept with the enthusiasm for any social engagement, particularly a small one, that he always managed to display. “Good,” he said as we concluded, “I will see you just after one o’clock tomorrow.” He did not. Later that afternoon he collapsed and died on the pavement of Brook Street.
He was sixty-five, having been born, conveniently for reckoning his age at stages in his career, at the beginning of 1900. He lived his life in the American equivalent of the British Victorian age. Unlike the original, it was not a period of peace. But in most other respects the first sixty years of this century bore for America many of the characteristics of the long years of the reign of the old Queen. There was the same sense of steadily expanding power, the same belief that rapidly increasing material wealth contained the key to most of the problems of the nation and the world, the same conviction that the domestic political system, whatever its blemishes, was the best that history had ever seen and that its fundamental principles, subject to a little special packaging, were suitable for export as well as for home consumption. Of course there were differences. The setback of the American slump years was more severe than anything known in Victorian England, but in the context of the century the miseries that followed 1929 were relatively short-lived. And the disparate nature of the origins of the American people, together with the tradition of violence that sprang out of the Civil War and the settlement of the West, meant that there was always a stronger undercurrent of fear and tension.
Throughout Stevenson’s lifetime, however, these did little more than dent the surface of American national self-confidence. His liberal voice spoke from within the framework of assurance. It was a voice that, even though it never achieved a position of full authority, helped to civilize and make more responsible this plenitude of American power. It made it more acceptable to the world. He challenged the complacency of Eisenhower and the selfrighteousness of John Foster Dulles and was a counterpoise to the roughness of Lyndon Johnson. But he was nonetheless a product, although a sensitive and unselfish one, of this period of American leadership. For him there was never a conflict between liberalism and commitment abroad. To be responsible was to be involved, from Berlin to Korea, from Southeast Asia to Latin America.
This background of power was far from giving him a brash self-assurance. He questioned from time to time whether he was suited to the office for which he strove for a decade and whether a public career was not necessarily corrupting of a man’s private personality. But he did not question the parameters within which, had he succeeded, he would have sought to exercise the supreme power or within which, without full success, he used the very considerable influence that his fame brought him.
There is a view that Stevenson was the quintessential upper-class figure in American politics. I think this view is wrong, both in fact and in inference. Stevenson did not come from a signally upper-class background. The American aristocracy is an aristocracy of wealth, preferably old wealth and mostly eastern seaboard. His family were well established, but they were not Easterners and, although thoroughly comfortable, had no vast wealth. He lived his life against a secure and established background, but he was much less affected by his family provenance and privileges than Franklin Roosevelt, or Nelson Rockefeller, or Averell Harriman. And as a politician his hesitancies, fastidiousness, and occasional incompetencies were much more the product of a complicated, rather wistful personality than of any social syndrome.
“Americans have always assumed, subconsciously, that all problems can be solved; that every story has a happy ending; that the application of enough energy and goodwill can make everything come out right. In view of our history, this assumption is natural enough. As a people we have never encountered any obstacle that we could not overcome. The Pilgrims had a rough first winter, but after that the colony flourished. Valley Forge was followed naturally by Yorktown. Daniel Boone always found his way through the forest. We crossed the Alleghenies and the Mississippi and the Rockies with an impetus that nothing could stop. The wagon trains got through; the Pony Express delivered the mail… the Union was somehow preserved. We never came across a river we couldn’t bridge, a depression we couldn’t overcome, a war we couldn’t win. So far, we have never known the tragedy, frustration and sometimes defeat which are ingrained in the memories of all other peoples.” —1954
Stevenson was born in Los Angeles. His father, Lewis Stevenson, spent about ten years in various places on the West Coast, mainly because he thought it would be good for his always somewhat ailing health. In 1906 he came back to Illinois, to Bloomington, the hometown of himself and his wife and their many relations, and became a largescale farm manager, supervising twelve thousand acres on behalf of an aunt. Bloomington, a hundred twenty-five miles southwest of Chicago, then had about thirty thousand inhabitants and was an agreeable mixture of farm center and college town. The Stevenson forebears had been there since it became a settled community about 1850. They were all of old American stock and had come in from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and the Carolinas.
Lewis Stevenson also engaged mildly in politics, becoming Illinois secretary of state in 1913. He knew the great national figures of the Democratic Party, to which he had a firm hereditary affiliation, and they treated him as a figure of considerable local importance.
Lewis Stevenson’s father, Adlai E. Stevenson i, was a more serious politician. He had been appointed Assistant Postmaster General in Grover Cleveland’s first administration and won the Vice-presidential nomination in 1892, when Cleveland became the only President ever to go back to the White House. Adlai i served his four years in Wash- ington and then returned to Bloomington. He died in 1914.
This was Stevenson’s family background: political, prosperous, rooted, small-town oriented. It was an agreeable and on the whole relaxed upbringing, marred by one dreadful and little-known incident. When he was twelve, he accidentally shot dead in his own house a sixteen-yearold girl, who was his sister’s closest friend and a distant cousin of them both. He was hardly guilty even of carelessness. The gun with which he was playing had been sent for and checked as empty of bullets by the older children. But the effect of the tragedy was temporarily devastating and musi have left some more permanent scars. It may have accounted for the fact that although he went to school in the East, as his father had done before him, he did not go until he was sixteen. He then went to Choate in Connecticut for two years and next to Princeton. He had some difficulty in getting in. Throughout his life, indeed, and contrary to widespread belief, his intellectual qualities were never particularly strong. He read comparatively little and very slowly, often moving his lips as he did so. He preferred to inform himself through the ear rather than the eye. He was quick to have some idea of what was in the books he had not read.
He graduated in 1922, went on to Harvard Law School, and was admitted to the Illinois bar in June, 1926. By the end of the year he had established himself, by Princeton rather than nepotic influence, as a law clerk in a Chicago firm of highest repute and the best possible financial contacts. For the rest of his life Stevenson became to some considerable extent a Chicago man. Bloomington rather faded into the background. He maintained the connection when campaigning in mid-Illinois, of course, but not much on other occasions.
It was his early Chicago life, more than his family and Bloomington upbringing, that put upon Stevenson something of the stamp of a Scott Fitzgerald socialite of the restless twenties. In fact he was not very restless, nor particularly pleasure-loving, and he worked hard, with growing but not sensational success, at the law. He lived mostly in a small apartment on the North Shore Gold Coast but spent much of the summer in a shared house at Lake Forest. So he was never far from the center of the social scene. The culmination of this phase of his life was his marriage in December, 1928, to Ellen Borden. She was rich, pretty, and barely twenty, one of the most soughtafter butterflies of the Chicago scene. She lived in a mockRenaissance chateau on Lake Shore Drive. Her father, rich by inheritance, both made and lost a lot of money. But in 1928 he, like most American men of property, was on the upswing.
The marriage was a gradual failure. Various explanations have been offered for this, the most frequent being that Ellen Stevenson resented the shift in the balance of fame and found no compensation in her husband’s mounting political success. At the beginning she was the more sought-after and he witty, charming, and easy social coinage, but superficially little more. At the end, twenty-one years later, he was a national figure, and the Borden fortune had largely disappeared. Not having known Mrs. Stevenson, I express no opinion. What is certain is that the breakup was a source of deep and lasting distress to Stevenson.
Stevenson’s first foray away from La Salle Street and Lake Forest came at the beginning of Roosevelt’s first term. Partly through the agency of Harold Ickes, the new Secretary of the Interior, he went to Washington for eighteen months as an assistant counsel in the Agricultural Assistance Administration. Then he returned to Chicago and his law practice. He became a partner in 1Q35 and with the reorganization and renaming of the firm in 1937 graduated to a major role and a steadily enlarging income. By the outbreak of the war in Europe he was making thirty or forty thousand dollars a year.
“Diplomacy… is not the art of asserting ever more emphatically that attitudes should not be what they clearly are. It is not the repudiation of actuality, but the recognition of actuality, and the use of actuality to advance our national interests.” —1954
During this period he also became increasingly involved in community affairs, notably the Council on Foreign Relations but also a few charities, a cross-party cleangovernment league, and some regular party activity at the time of Roosevelt’s second-term election. He was then thirty-six, and it is doubtful if he had ever before made a straight political speech. Nor did he make more than a handful for another twelve years thereafter. But he nonetheless began to make a minority-audience public name for himself. His introduction of visiting speakers at the council became known as models of wit and felicity. They were delivered in a throwaway manner. They were not so composed. On one occasion when he was asked to insert a new point, he recoiled in horror. He could not possibly do it without at least an hour’s further preparation.
In 1939 he spent the early summer in England and returned oppressed by the shadow of the coming war. Soon after his return he began his first substantial political enterprise, his first attempt to mold opinion. He became chairman of the Chicago chapter of William Alien White’s Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. The length of the title was made necessary by an ambiguity of approach. The aim was to produce an Allied victory while keeping America at peace. Chicago was a key segment of the ideological battle line. Isolationist sentiment was strong there. Stevenson had to stand up to a lot of abuse, both public and private. He greatly disliked it, but his controversial nerves improved under the bombardment.
In July, 1941, he again took a job in Washington, as personal assistant to Frank Knox, whom Roosevelt had recently appointed Secretary of the Navy. Later that year he began to be attracted by elective office and contemplated the possibility of running for the United States Senate. But American entry into the war turned his thoughts away from that. He stayed with Knox until 1943, and was then sent to try to organize civil administration in Italy. At the end of the war and in early 1946 he was occupied with the organization of the United Nations.
A year after the end of war in Europe he was once more back in his Chicago law office. He was forty-six. He had refused an embassy. He had a good record of public service. He had developed a feel for diplomatic negotiation and some rather ill-directed sense of ambition. Not for the first or last time in his life he was uncertain what he wanted to do.
By the summer of 1947 he again began to be tentatively, mock-reluctantly, interested in elective office. A Presidential year was on the horizon. President Truman’s stock was low, and the likelihood of his defeat looked overwhelming. On the other hand the possibility of a Democrat of Stevenson’s stamp securing nomination in Illinois had improved. The old Kelly-Nash machine had been beaten in Chicago. Colonel Jacob Arvey had taken over as head of the Cook County Democratic organization. Maurice Kennelly, a successful Irish businessman with a reform reputation and a broad appeal, had triumphantly replaced Kelly as mayor.
As in 1941, it was the Senate that attracted Stevenson. If nominated, he could run against an isolationist incumbent who was an old enemy. If elected, he could pursue his main foreign-policy interests. A trio of influential Chicago gentlemen with little direct political involvement began to canvass actively on his behalf. There were also recommendations from Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary Byrnes. Arvey was half-impressed. Mayor Kennelly’s success, and his own predilections, made him open to the idea of candidates with an appeal to middle opinion. But he was not sure about either Stevenson or his associates. He thought they might be too detached from the realities even of reformed Illinois politics. He made inquiries and gratefully received an assurance from Stevenson that, contrary to rumor, he had not been at Oxford, and “not even Eton.” Eventually Arvey gave them half of what they wanted. He preferred Paul Douglas for the Senate nomination, but Stevenson could run for governor. A thirtyman committee would make the formal decisions, but Arvey had made up his mind.
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.
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.
“And to the Soviet Union I would say: There are laws of history more profound, more inescapable than the laws dreamed up by Marx and Lenin- laws which belong not to class relationships or stages of economic development, but to the nature and the destiny of man himself. Among these laws is the certainty that war follows when new empires thrust into collapsing ruins of the old. So stay your ambitions … do not sabotage the only institution [the United Nations] which offers an alternative to imperialism.” —1961
Eisenhower would “lead a crusade” (he had led one already, he stressed) to “clear up the mess in Washington.” He would be hard on corruption and communism. Still more important for vote winning was his “I shall go to Korea” statement at Detroit on October 24. The war there hung heavily over the nation throughout the campaign. Although more creditable and successful than its successor in Vietnam, it was nonetheless almost as unpopular, although less frenetically so. Eisenhower’s promise to go there came as a shaft of light. Most Americans did not ask what he would do when he arrived. The General would surely find a way out. Stevenson responded with a clearly argued but defensive antiappeasement statement. It was less appealing than the hopeful ambiguity of his opponent.
“7 don’t share the concern of some of my contemporaries about student demonstrations. I rather like their involvement in great issues. But if I could offer demonstrators one word of advice I would say that to state goals is easy; to tell us how to get there is not so easy. ” —1965
It was an exchange that was typical of the campaign. Stevenson’s speeches were more responsible, better phrased, better delivered, enlivened by a wit that was wholly lacking in Eisenhower (“I offer my opponents a bargain: if they will stop telling falsehoods about us, I will stop telling the truth about them”), and better received by the immediate audiences. But they made less impact across the nation, partly because they were less well reported by an overwhelmingly Republican press and partly because their message was less simple. Stevenson also spread his effort across too wide and diffuse a range of subjects.
Eisenhower’s campaign had some seamy edges. He did not disavow McCarthyism and indeed appeared with the senator in Wisconsin, cutting out of his speech there a passage of praise for General George Marshall, whom McCarthy had viciously attacked, which had been in the original draft. This aroused Stevenson’s particular contempt. “Crusade indeed” was his comment. Marshall was “General Eisenhower’s greatest benefactor.” Yet the General had given his hand to those, not only McCarthy, but also Senator Jenner of Indiana, who had traduced him. This was a break from Stevenson’s habit of courteous, almost overcourteous, treatment of his opponent. He reserved most of his acerbic remarks for the then Senator Nixon, second man on the Republican ticket, who specialized in suggesting that the Democratic candidate was steeped in the Acheson-inspired conspiracy to hand over the United States to communism. Stevenson called him “the brash and patronizing young man who aspires to be Vice President” and forcibly defended his own position in terms of classical liberalism.
Stevenson wound up his campaign in Chicago, where it had started, and awaited the returns in Springfield. At 9 P.M. he was told what the result would be and accepted it calmly.
He carried only nine states, all in or on the edge of the South. A few hours later Stevenson went across to his local hotel headquarters and conceded graciously. He added, spontaneously it seemed, that someone had once asked a fellow townsman—Lincoln—how it felt to lose: “He said that it felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.” He was as urbane in defeat as he had been four years before in victory.
Defeat in the Presidential campaign of 1952 left Adlai Stevenson with a lasting fame, both at home and abroad; dedicated minority support, particularly among the educated young, balanced by a strong current of criticism from others about the way in which he had conducted the campaign; and no very clear political role. His ardent supporters felt that he had widened their horizons and given them a purpose and commitment in politics that they had never before experienced. His detractors pointed out, with some justification, that he had been aloof, not very good on television, above the heads of much of his audience, sometimes elegantly flippant when he ought to have been stolidly earnest, and rather ill-organized. His lack of a clear future role was endemic in the American system. He automatically remained the titular head of his party. But he had no forum in which to exercise his leadership; and 1956 was a long way off, with a second attempt for a defeated candidate nearer to the exception than the rule.
“While I am not in favor of maladjustment, I view this cultivation of neutrality, this breeding of mental neuters, this hostility to eccentricity and controversy with grave misgiving. One looks back with dismay at the possibility of… Wesley contentedly administering a country parish, George Washington going to London to receive a barony from George in, or Abraham Lincoln prospering in Springfield with never a concern for the preservation of the crumbling Union.” —1955
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
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