"[P]ublic affairs and politics are as linked as love and sex [and] Stevenson's attitude toward politics has always seemed that of a man who believes that love is the most ennobling of human emotions while the mechanics of sex are dirty and squalid." -- Theodore White.
Adlai E. Stevenson was born on this day in 1900 in Los Angeles.
The grandson and namesake of Grover Cleveland's Vice President Adlai Stevenson, young Adlai Stevenson accidentally killed a young girl at a party at age 12 when a .22 rifle went off in his hands. Whether or not that incident had anything to do with it, he would not be known as a light or carefree character; at best, he was seen as moodily burdened, and at worst, he would be known as colorless and dour -- some tough perceptions to overcome with a 1950s-era national electorate looking for an easygoing countenance to match its collectively breezy mood.
Stevenson practiced law before being appointed to the Agricultural Adjustment Agency by President Roosevelt in 1932, but took an interest in foreign affairs as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served in policy roles in the Department of the Navy and the State Department during World War II, and in 1945 was given responsibility for the earliest U.S. involvement in the United Nations.
In 1948, he was dusted off for the Illinois gubernatorial campaign and won, taking on political corruption and organized crime, building roads and spearheading the improvement of public education. Although initially he had no interest in higher office, his record of reform in a big electoral state led the Democrats to draft him in 1952 to face the popular World War II general, Dwight Eisenhower, as the Democratic candidate for president. Although he was not himself an intellectual per se, he surrounded himself with them (Galbraith, Schlesinger, and the other "eggheads") and delivered erudite speeches (written for him by intellectuals) in which the problems of America were anything but black and white. Mort Sahl joked that if Stevenson were a member of the Klan, he would burn a question mark on your lawn.
A divorced Unitarian with perpetual worry lines and a large vocabulary, Stevenson was a misfit; but he appealed to his constituency largely because his eccentricity set him apart from the retail politicians and seemed to signal special competence. Eisenhower won the election in an electoral landslide (442 to 89 electoral votes), but Stevenson's conduct during the campaign secured for him the role of leader of the opposition. During Eisenhower's first term, Stevenson criticized the Republican coziness with business interests and denounced the antics of Joseph McCarthy. In 1956, he beat a challenge by Estes Kefauver for the Democratic nomination for president, and added criticism of Eisenhower's frequent golf vacations to his repertoire (leading supporters to chime "Adlai is a lousy golfer!"), but lost by an even greater margin (457 to 73).
In 1960, Stevenson coyly waited to be drafted a third time, but lost the nomination to a well-organized John Kennedy. President Kennedy resented Stevenson's refusal to stand aside earlier in the campaign, but grudgingly offered him the post of UN ambassador. The UN was considered to be a dead-end job, until the Soviet Union began to deploy offensive nuclear missiles on Cuban soil in 1962. The story about Bobby Kennedy urging for his removal, fearing that he wasn't tough enough to face down the Soviets, is now part of the official mythology. Although he had served the War effort as a member of the under-Cabinet in military oversight, Stevenson made his foreign policy reputation as a non-aggressive internationalist -- as an icon of earnest do-goodery he could easily be dressed in Chamberlain's duds. During the Cuban missile crisis, this was initially his Achilles' heel; but ultimately, it was his status as an internationalist which gave his fighting words in the UN on October 25, 1962 (during which he displayed for all the world to see the photographic evidence of the Soviet build-up) a ring of greater credibility.
He hoped for more influence when Lyndon Johnson took office after Kennedy's assassination, but had even less as Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He died of a massive heart attack while walking down a London street on July 14, 1965.
Oddly enough, Stevenson was a cousin of M*A*S*H star McLean Stevenson.
REF: Greenberg, "The Last of the Beautiful Losers," Salon (June 30, 2000).
Categories: American-Politicians, Presidential-Campaigns