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The Adlai Issue

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

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He was a Democratic presidential candidate from Illinois, a celebrated orator and an intellectual running against a military hero at the time of an unpopular war. His political resumé was relatively short, and his appeal formed in part around his call for a change in the practice of politics in this country. Critics claimed he was an elitist, and Republicans accused him of being weak and naïve about America’s enemies. He got crushed in the general election.

A glimpse into the future? No, a snapshot of the past—the 1952 presidential election. Adlai E. Stevenson of Libertyville, the popular governor of Illinois, ran on the Democratic ticket against Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former army general who had been a major architect of the Allied victory in World War II. 

So, is the presumptive Democratic candidate, Illinois senator Barack Obama, the second coming of Adlai Stevenson? A number of observers have suggested as much, including (gleefully, one suspects) Karl Rove, the Republican strategist. The answer is no. Gaping differences separate the candidates and their eras. “Actually, Barack is more like Jack Kennedy in that he represents a generational change in the country,” says Newton Minow, the Chicago lawyer (and friend of Obama) who worked for both Stevenson and JFK.

Still, the parallels between Stevenson and Obama are pronounced, if easy to exaggerate (see chart). To elaborate just a few:

Both men ignited their national political careers with a stirring speech to a Democratic National Convention. Actually, in Stevenson’s case there were two speeches. In 1952, the Democrats gathered in Chicago at the International Amphitheatre, at Halsted and 43rd Street. Stevenson had not entered a single primary and had insisted he didn’t want to run for president, despite being recruited by the sitting president, Harry Truman. As governor of Illinois, though, Stevenson greeted the delegates on July 21st with a welcoming address that flashed his wit and thoughtful intelligence and led to what amounted to a draft. “Nobody had heard of Adlai except the people of Illinois,” recalls Abner Mikva, the former congressman and federal judge, who was a page at the convention. “He just fired up the delegates.” Five days later, in accepting the nomination, Stevenson gave a self-deprecating and candid speech that many consider one of the outstanding political orations in U.S. history. “The ordeal of the twentieth century, the bloodiest, most turbulent era of the whole Christian age, is far from over,” he proclaimed. “Sacrifice, patience, understanding, and implacable purpose may be our lot for years to come. Let’s face it. Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth. . . .” (The speech can be heard here.)

Obama’s introduction to the country beyond Illinois, of course, came with his electrifying keynote at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. (Read senior editor David Bernstein’s account of the story behind Obama’s speech.)

Both men fashioned their campaigns in part on calls to improve political life in this country. Stevenson famously sought to turn the campaign into a kind of seminar for voters, insisting that what was important was to educate Americans on the issues. “What does concern me . . . is not just winning this election but how it is won, how well we can take advantage of this great quadrennial opportunity to debate issues sensibly and soberly,” he said in his acceptance speech, accurately previewing the style of his campaign.

Obama’s appeal has grown in large part from his promise to lead the country out of a fallow era of bitter partisanship, moving beyond the red-state, blue-state divide, as he eloquently put it in that 2004 keynote.

Critics turned the intelligence and verbal skills of both candidates into a flaw, claiming they were elitist, out of touch with the common man. Based on his family and background, Stevenson certainly counted as upper crust. He came from a well-to-do and distinguished Illinois political family (his grandfather had been vice president under President Grover Cleveland from 1893 to 1897); he had degrees from Princeton and Northwestern University Law School; and he had held several important nonelective government positions. Though he was warm and funny in person, he had a complex intelligence and he refused to speak down to voters. The columnist Stewart Alsop called him an “egghead,” and the term caught on. It was not considered a compliment.

Obama’s “elitist” problems have stemmed in part from his thoughtful speaking style, his Ivy League education, his Hyde Park/ University of Chicago roots, his popularity with well-off white liberals, and his difficulty connecting with working-class white voters—all of which he inadvertently spotlighted with his comment in April about the “bitter” residents of small towns.

Newt Minow admires the quality of thinking of both Obama and Stevenson. “They are much alike in the way they look at issues. They are not ideologues—they have the habit of looking at all sides.” On the campaign trail, however, where simplicity (if not simple-mindedness) is often rewarded, that professorial style of analysis led to confusion and charges of waffling.

Both men offered a somewhat internationalist, collaborative foreign policy approach—especially compared with the conservative wing of the GOP—and both came under withering criticism for being weak on national defense. Stevenson had participated in the creation of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, and he emphasized the importance of working globally throughout his public life, which culminated in a term as ambassador to the UN under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. In the 1952 campaign, at a time of growing U.S. anxiety over the Soviet threat, Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate and campaign heavy, Richard Nixon, called Stevenson “Adlai the Appeaser” and accused him of being soft on Communism.           

Obama’s internationalist tilt has been featured in his criticism of what he has called the “failed cowboy diplomacy” of the Bush Administration and his stated willingness to talk to hostile leaders, such as the president of Iran. In response, the GOP has consistently painted the Illinois senator as naïve and reckless, and some Republicans have accused him of having a “Sept. 10 mindset.”

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