The Adlai Issue

Is Barack Obama the second coming of that other “elitist” Democratic presidential candidate from Illinios, Adlai Stevenson?

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In April 1952, Stevenson still insisted he would not seek the presidency. Below: In July of that year, the Illinois governor addressed the Democractic convention; five days later he accepted his party’s nomination.

Given the outcome of the 1952 election (Eisenhower collected 55 percent of the popular vote, which understates his whopping 442 to 89 electoral-college victory), shouldn’t a loyal Obama Democrat be suffering nightmares of déjà vu? Let’s look at some of the differences. One candidate was white, 52, and the first single divorced man to run for president. The other is a 47-year-old half-black native of Hawaii, whose wife is active in the campaign. Though both men rightfully won praise for their speaking abilities, they put those talents to quite different uses. Stevenson’s style was low-key, cerebral, even slightly dense by modern media standards. His son Adlai Stevenson III, who supports Obama, pointedly says, “My father’s eloquence was substantive.” In her 1996 biography The Stevensons, Jean H. Baker describes how the candidate obsessively wrote and rewrote his speeches, insisting that they be fresh for each audience—a sacrifice of time and energy that she says impeded his campaign. In contrast, Obama has developed a rousing delivery (at least, on selected occasions) that some ascribe to his attendance at African American churches. And though Obama substantially writes many of his own speeches, like every other modern candidate he endlessly recycles his standard stump talks.

When Stevenson first ran, television had only recently launched its invasion of American households, and the ‘52 campaign was the first in which the candidates appealed directly to voters through the tube. The parties bought chunks of airtime, and separately Stevenson and Eisenhower talked live to the audience about the issues. There were no televised debates. Again, by Baker’s account, Stevenson’s fastidiousness about his language and his arguments got him in trouble—he often appeared stiff and sour in front of the cameras, and he sometimes misjudged the allotted minutes so that the broadcast got cut off before he had finished. Both he and Eisenhower were wary of the new medium, but Stevenson refused coaching and even makeup. As Baker sums up his attitude: “What Stevenson wanted was the people’s ears and minds, not their eyes or hearts.”

The TV ads during the ‘52 campaign also suggest (to a modern sensibility, anyway) that the Republicans were far ahead of Democrats in matching the new medium to their candidate. Notable Eisenhower spots show the former commander of Allied forces in Europe forthrightly answering questions from a purported man on the street. The Stevenson ads are mostly cartoons and jingles, the sort of thing used to sell toothpaste or breakfast cereal. (A wonderful Web site, LivingRoomCandidate .org, has collected the major TV ads from campaigns over the years.)

Obama has earned mixed reviews on his television appearances, though he certainly competes well on that front with his presumed Republican opponent, John McCain. More important, though, whereas Stevenson was flummoxed by television, Obama and his team have embraced the new medium of their era, the Internet. As The New York Times recently put it, the campaign has “revolutionized the use of the Web as a political tool, helping the candidate raise more than two million donations of less than $200 each and swiftly mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters before various primaries.” Chris Hughes, one of the founders of the social-networking boom site Facebook, has stepped in as Obama’s “online organizing guru.”

Politically, the landscape was utterly different in 1952. When Stevenson ran, the Democrats had held the White House for 20 years, first under Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Harry Truman. “All the baggage that Truman had left—Stevenson had to finesse it,” says Paul Green, the Roosevelt University professor of policy studies. That baggage included the unpopular ongoing war in Korea, which had erupted on Truman’s watch. Obama, of course, is running against a two-term Republican administration that initiated the current war in Iraq. In that context, Green points out, Stevenson is more like McCain, having to walk a tightrope between defending his party’s leader and separating from him.

What’s more, as almost everyone concedes today, no one was going to beat Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Ike returned from World War II a monumental American hero, and both parties tried to recruit him to run for president. (He had started out as a Democrat and later turned Republican, though the isolationist and witch-hunting McCarthyist leanings of the GOP appalled him.) If there was ever any doubt about the outcome of the contest, it was dispelled in October 1952, when Eisenhower vowed if elected to go to Korea. Here was the man given much of the credit for the Allied victory in World War II, promising to take charge of a conflict that baffled and frustrated many Americans.

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People who knew Stevenson or have studied him point to an even more fundamental difference between him and this year’s presumptive Democratic candidate: Stevenson remained deeply ambivalent about running for president. “He did everything he could not to run, including making personal entreaties to Truman,” says Adlai Stevenson III. The Guv, as many of his friends called him, believed in the obligation of public service. But the hurly-burly of politics, reaching out to people, building coalitions, bothered him deeply. “Adlai always found it uncomfortable,” says Mikva.

His gift for making fun of himself charmed his admirers and many members of the press (“Eggheads of the world, unite!” he famously cried. “You have nothing to lose but your yolks"), but Jean Baker suggests that his humor masked a lack of confidence. “Stevenson wasn’t prepared intellectually, physically, and psychologically for what national politics demands,” she told me. 

During the campaign, he refused to hedge his positions or pander to his audience—he didn’t “trim, equivocate, or clasp dirty hands,” he boasted later to a friend. In his biography, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, John Bartlow Martin—who served as a Stevenson speechwriter—describes how the candidate seemed to go out of his way to provoke his audience. To the American Legion, he gave a civics lesson on patriotism and its responsibilities; in Michigan, he warned auto workers that he wouldn’t follow a strict labor line; in Harlem, he praised his running mate, John Sparkman, the senator from segregationist Alabama. Stevenson’s “writers learned that the best way to get a point into a speech was to tell Stevenson that his audience would not like it,” Jean H. Baker says in her book.

His candor was bracing and perhaps admirable, but it made for difficult politics. Paul F. Boller Jr., the author of Presidential Campaigns, suggests Stevenson was simply naïve about the game. He certainly was idealistic. Adlai III says his father believed the purpose of the campaign was “to inform the public—it didn’t matter who won.” Baker put it to me more bluntly: “Stevenson really didn’t care if he was elected to the White House,” she said. “He went around the country telling people what they didn’t want to hear.”

No one has creditably accused Obama of not caring whether he wins. Indeed, his ambition has contributed to some of his recent campaign dustups, as he has tuned his positions, edged toward the center, and set off accusations of the dreaded flip-flop. What’s more, Obama’s vibrant appeal to new voters and the young far surpasses anything in Stevenson’s flawed campaign.

“Barack loves politics,” Newton Minow says, “and Adlai used to say to me, ‘I’m not going to run around shopping centers as if I were running for sheriff.’ He didn’t really like campaigning.”

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