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The Adlai Issue

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

(page 3 of 3)



The parallels between Stevenson and Obama are intriguing—but don’t get fooled


Short political resumé
Illinois governor, 1949-53
Illinois state senator, 1997-2004; U.S. senator, 2005-
Ignition to candidacy
Speech at 1952 Democratic National Convention
Speech at 2004 Democratic National Convention
Celebrated talent
Ongoing unpopular war
War-hero opponent
Dwight D. Eisenhower
John McCain
Chicago clout
Jake Arvey (1)
Richard M. Daley
Underlying reformist campaign theme
Bring civility to public life
End rancorous partisanship
GOP attack point on national security
Communist appeaser
Weak on terrorism
False rumor
He’s a homosexual (2)
He’s a Muslim
Disparaging epithet
“Fellow traveler” problem
Alger Hiss (3)
William Ayers

(1) From the 1920s to the 1950s, Jake Arvey was a power in Democratic machine politics in Chicago and Cook County, and he slated Stevenson in his 1948 run for governor.

(2) Various sources cited by Jean H. Baker in her Stevenson biography link the rumor to the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, who supported the Republican ticket.

(3) Hiss was a former State Department official who was convicted of perjury in 1950 for denying that he had spied for the Soviets. Stevenson had known Hiss since the 1930s when they worked together in Washington, and Stevenson testified for him as a character witness.


But are there lessons for Obama in the Stevenson race? Several people to whom I spoke pointed out that Obama’s tendency—held in common with Stevenson—to turn professorial could cost him votes. Jean Baker says she detects “a slight haughtiness in his speeches and comments. Also, his hesitation in his speeches—as if he’s searching for exactly how to say this in a literate sentence.” She wonders if that manner distances him from some people.

Michael Mezey, a professor of political science at DePaul University, who was nine during the ‘52 campaign, says his father was a manual laborer who would never have dreamed of voting for a Republican. Yet, once, after a Stevenson speech, Mezey recalls, “I heard my father say to my mother, ‘Either that man is stupid or he thinks I’m stupid.’ You get a little of that with Obama.”

Mezey points out that candidates face a conundrum. “Voters say they want an intelligent president, but someone who talks to the people. Obama is trying to navigate that line. He has to find a way to connect with people who are in some ways anti-intellectual.” Mezey adds that he thinks Obama recognizes the problem—and he needs only to look back as far as Bill Clinton to find someone who basically solved it.

* * *

On election night in 1952, Stevenson waited at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield as the returns came in on the radio. He didn’t even carry Illinois. Though he had been ambivalent about taking on the presidency and he put on a good face that night, the results no doubt pained him. John Bartlow Martin recounts that when a woman wearing an Eisenhower pin complimented him for using his campaign to educate the electorate, he responded, “But a lot of people flunked the course.” Still, a month later, he was in good humor at a dinner event at the Gridiron Club in Washington, contrasting his overwhelming victory when he ran for governor with his overwhelming defeat going for the presidency: “Did anyone starting from scratch ever enter our public life with such widespread approval, and then leave, with such widespread approval—all in the space of four years?”

Today, as firsthand memories of Stevenson fade, he tends to be invoked mostly as a model in reverse, his name flaunted by conservatives such as Karl Rove and George Will to diminish Barack Obama. In the online magazine Slate, David Greenberg has even argued that Stevenson’s steadfast fans are basically charmed by his role as a lovable loser (a political version of Cubs fever—another Illinois connection). To practitioners of modern, go-for-the-throat politics, Stevenson (who died in 1965) seems gentlemanly, soft, hopelessly un-pragmatic.

Those analyses overlook the passage of time. The 1952 campaign stands as a hinge event between the more issue-oriented campaigns behind and the television-enabled personal politics to come. As Baker argues, Stevenson looked back toward the kind of race that would have been familiar to his grandfather, the vice president. Eisenhower was not a whit more insightful in his understanding of the altered nature of politics, but his oversized heroism fit the new game. “Politics has changed,” says Adlai III, himself a former U.S. senator. “The whole process has changed. My father couldn’t do it today.”

But it would be wrong for the Obama team to dismiss him or ignore him. In a public career of more than 30 years, Stevenson stood out for his reasoned handling of the issues, highlighted in 1962 by his dramatic denunciation of the Soviets at the United Nations during the Cuban missile crisis. (When the Soviet representative refused to say whether his country was planting missiles in Cuba, Stevenson barked, “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.") While governor, and during his campaigns, he displayed a gift for spotting talent, and many of his colleagues went on to serve in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Though he was notably slow to embrace the civil rights movement, his farsighted plans for fighting poverty became cornerstones of the Great Society legislation. He recognized early on the insane dangers—environmental, among them—of the arms race with the Soviets and in the 1956 campaign called for a ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, a position that was derided by the GOP, but adopted a few years later by President Eisenhower. Long before most other U.S. officials, Stevenson recognized that the conflict in Vietnam was at heart a civil war.

In short, Stevenson had wisdom, integrity, and a keen vision. The Obama people should ask themselves why a candidate can’t have those qualities—and run a strong campaign, too.  


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