Flashback Friday – Adlai Stevenson

Last Friday we featured a Canadian politician who had multiple opportunities to become prime minister, but could not accomplish the deed against a much more popular opponent. Today, we feature a similar individual from the United States. Just like Robert Stanfield, Adlai Stevenson was well respected for his intellect. Stanfield won praise for his time as Premier of Nova Scotia, while Stevenson was touted for his time as Governor of Illinois. And like Stanfield, Stevenson was lucky enough to get more than one attempt at becoming president… and he lost both times. For Stanfield, his nemesis was Trudeau and for Stevenson, it was Eisenhower, As such, Stevenson gets lost in the history books, as nothing more than a two time Democratic presidential nominee. But today, we focus our attention on Adlai Stevenson, a man who some might argue was the great president the country never had.

Adlai E. Stevenson II was born in 1900 in Los Angeles. He moved to Illinois at a very young age, where he spent the majority of his life. Before he was even born, he had very strong political roots. His great-grandfather, Jesse W. Fell, was a campaign manager for Abraham Lincoln. His grandfather, Adlai E. Stevenson I, was vice president under President Grover Cleveland from 1893-1897. His father, Lewis Stevenson, was Secretary of State for Illinois from 1914-1917. With these heavy political ties, it is not surprising that Stevenson eventually ended up in politics. Not surprisingly, the Stevenson family was well off. Adlai grew up in upper class neighbourhoods. He was educated in Illinois and Connecticut. He then went to Princeton University, graduating with a B.A. in 1922. Stevenson then attended Harvard Law School, but did not enjoy it and dropped out.

He had worked in the newspaper industry throughout high school and university. After leaving Harvard he worked as a writer for his family’s newspaper. He then changed his mind, and decided he did want to do law after all. He went to Northwestern University School of Law, where he later graduated with a degree in the subject. He was accepted to the Illinois Bar and began practicing. He then worked his way up to become the special assistant to the secretary of the navy during WWII. This led him to a position in the state department organizing the United Nations. In this role he met and became good friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. This would greatly assist Stevenson, as it was a national connection in the Democratic party.

With encouragement from Eleanor and his friends, Stevenson decided in 1948 to run as a candidate to become the governor of Illinois. It was a long shot, since Stevenson had never been elected to any office. He was not extremely well known, but had enough name recognition to mount a campaign. He won the Democratic nomination and challenged incumbent Governor Dwight H. Green. Green’s government was extremely corrupt, and Stevenson ran as the candidate who would reform government and be a more honest leader. Stevenson was an excellent orator. That was undoubtedly his best political quality. He could easily stir an audience with his speeches. With help from the Truman wave, which swept the country, Stevenson was elected by a large majority in 1948.

During all of this, Stevenson married in 1928. He and his wife had three sons, but the two divorced in 1949. Stevenson’s son, Adlai E. Stevenson III, followed in his father’s footsteps and went into politics. He served as a Senator from 1970-1981. As governor, he gained more admiration for his intellect, and excellent speaking. The fact that he beat an incumbent Republican governor by such a wide margin gained him national attention. In 1952, President Truman announced he would not seek another term, and personally asked Stevenson to seek the Democratic nomination. It was somewhat far fetched, and Stevenson was reluctant. He had been governor for only one term, but after consideration, he accepted and put his name forward. He won the party’s nomination, and faced off against Dwight Eisenhower in the general election.

If President Truman had decided to seek reelection, the likelihood that he would have been successful is quite slim. The country had abandoned the Democratic party, as the Korean War loomed, nuclear testing increased and the cost of living rose. Despite his communication skills, Stevenson was seen as somewhat indecisive. He put forth ideas that were consistent with the New Deal, but by 1952, support for the New Deal had faded. Americans were very much enamoured with Eisenhower. The former general was the type of leader the country was looking for at that time, and they elected him handily. Stevenson and his running mate carried only 9 states.

After the election loss, Stevenson used the time to gain his exposure and knowledge. Looking back, it was clear that he would likely try again in 1956. Ordinarily, a person gets one chance to win for his or her party, then they are done. But Stevenson somehow managed to maintain his position as the leader of the Democratic party, even though no such position exists outside of Congress and the Senate. He travelled extensively and returned to secure the 1956 nomination as well. A Republican victory was expected, so many individuals did not want the job of running against Eisenhower. Stevenson was more determine than in 1952, and he fought hard. Unfortunately, his liberal message did not penetrate the electorate, and he lost even worse than in 1952.

After another defeat, Stevenson returned to practicing law. For whatever reason, he contemplated seeking the 1960 nomination. That would have been an unprecedented third nomination. Perhaps he thought that with the White House empty, he could finally move in. Unfortunately, the party was very much in favour of Senator John Kennedy, and Stevenson did not stand a chance. When Kennedy won in 1960, he appointed Stevenson U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson had been expecting a better position, but his relationship with Kennedy was somewhat strained. Stevenson served as Ambassador until his death from a sudden heart attack in 1965. He was only 65 years old.

The similarities between Stevenson and Stanfield are striking. The two men were well respected for their intellect and dedication, but viewed as indecisive and somewhat weak potential national leaders. They also faced opponents who were looked upon better by the electorate. Stanfield’s political ambitions were derailed by a single photo, as Stevenson’s were. A photo showing a hole in Stevenson’s shoe, was used to show how cheap and frugal he was. The two men also could also not master television, which was a new and emerging medium in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Unfortunately there is no section in the history books for ‘good guys’. It is undeniable that Stanfield and Stevenson were ‘good guys’, but that’s not always what the country needs. As some of you pointed out on the Stanfield post, Trudeau was perhaps what the country needed at that moment in time. The same could be said for the United States and Eisenhower, even though I am sure Stevenson would beg to differ.

What are your thoughts on Adlai Stevenson? Had you heard of him before today? Would he have made a good president?



About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on February 18, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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