The Shadow of Adlai Stevenson

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Mr. Adell is a student at Oberlin College.

Democrats, more than Republicans it seems, have always had a penchant for their "lovable losers;" those candidates, who despite passionate adherence to liberal causes, proved unable to capture the elected office they sought. Of course, the office is often the presidency, and the exposure afforded to any serious candidate provides him with a base of loyal supporters. The prominence these men acquire is often overshadowed by the victor's ensuing Administration and consequently smudged or erased throughout the channels of history. Yet a certain man still invokes nostalgic feelings among groups of Democrats, not Franklin Roosevelt and his retinue of New Dealers or John Kennedy and his flair for illustrious panache, but another, less successful figure, Adlai Stevenson.

Who is this man? Now, his name is all but forgotten—a one-liner in the back of high school textbooks under the "opponent" column. The principles this man advocated continue to be orated eloquently, but to today's younger generation, his personal legacy is unknown. Mr. Stevenson, who was the Democratic party's nominee for president in 1952 and 1956, twice lost in landslide elections to "Dwight D—" Dwight David Eisenhower. Mr. Stevenson ran honorable campaigns both times, but was ultimately defeated not by his own self-deprecating wit but by the immense cult of personality surrounding Eisenhower, dissatisfaction with twenty years of a Democratic executive branch, and a specter hanging over the party following Joe McCarthy's tirades. These three factors, in various manifestations, have plagued Democrats frequently in the last half-century.

The tendency for Democratic candidates to be perceived as being more wonkish and effete can be observed in every election save three (1960, 1964, and 1996) from 1952 to 2008. Is it a fair assessment? Probably not, but Republicans have repeatedly capitalized on this sentiment and have exacerbated it by promoting candidates with warm personal rapports with voters. Dwight Eisenhower the general, Ronald Reagan the cowboy, and George W. Bush the "regular guy" were personas that struck powerful chords with masses of voters unfamiliar with the intricacies of policy but able to recognize likeable personality traits. This trend came into its modern form during the Stevenson campaign of 1952, where the erudite Stevenson—character witness for Alger Hiss and supported by Columbia professors—was depicted as a man aloof and disconnected from voters. The fact that Mr. Stevenson promulgated positions critical of voter apathy and bureaucratic gridlock and firmly asserted in 1952 of all years that "criticism is not only an instrument of a free society, it is its symbol and hallmark as well" further exemplified the sheer improbability of him overcoming a far less divisive figure in Eisenhower.

Yet nowadays, over four decades after Stevenson's death, his ideals continue to proliferate among the masses. One may presume from hearing speeches made by John and Robert Kennedy that the rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt is dominant, yet phrases such as "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country" and "[to a group of medical students] You are the privileged ones here. It's easy for you to sit back and say it's the fault of the Federal Government. But it's our responsibility too. It's our society too" stem even more directly from Stevenson's beliefs in citizenship and responsibility. Perhaps that is why that when Barack Obama gives a speech assailing African-American men for a lack of responsibility, there is a group of Democrats that understands that although the unofficial leader of the party from 1952 to 1960 has long since been forgotten, there are still those, aware of his influence or not, still fighting for his ideals.

Of course, while Democrats have basked in the fact that these principles have endured a half-century of change, they have nevertheless been unable counter the methods that were used a half-century ago to ensure they would not be widely implemented. As previously mentioned, the aggrandized personas Republicans have cultivated for their candidates have proven difficult for Democrats to offset. Also instilled in the American populace is a patriotism associated primarily with Republican leaders that has resulted in Democratic candidates being forced to defend their loyalty.

Again, the lessons of the Stevenson election contain great relevance to present day. Joe McCarthy's witch-hunting campaign centered on traitors and effetes in the Democratic State department in its early stages, and before he made the grave mistake of attacking members of his own party, he had the Republican party's tacit approval. McCarthy's well-publicized "accidental" slip of phrase—"Alger—I mean Adlai"—exemplified the associations Republicans used to berate Stevenson.

The great paradox faced by the Democratic party is that it is unable to reconcile a general acceptance of the Stevenson platform with the fact that Stevenson, and men like him, are long gone. In other words, Democrats continue to believe in these constant ideals and commend the men who championed them, yet they have been unable to counteract Republican attacks on their advocates. Democrats must not only praise long-gone heroes but also, as the party of change, be able to examine the flaws that caught their heroes by the heels and use this knowledge to counter an increasingly wily opposition. Nostalgia--the kind of nostalgia that leads some Democrats to yearn for the eloquence of a man like Stevenson in the face of a hostile nation—is tempting, but victory is probably more important to most.

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R.R. Hamilton - 8/24/2008

The Democrats haven't been the "Party of Change" since about 1970. I challenge someone to give me one NEW idea that the Democrats have had since 1970. The Democrat answer to every question is always the same: "More government will help."

Robert Lee Gaston - 8/23/2008

I have to mention that his Coup de gras was delivered in the early fall of 1960 by none other than Bobby Kennedy.

Bryan Mullinax - 8/18/2008

What is this whole article but some huge whine about how wonderful Democrat ideas and candidates are - but for the evil Republicans preventing them from bringing paradise to America.

In over 50 years, if your ideas were so good the American people would have come to them. For example, the fact that slavery was a thing not to be tolerated but to be eliminated from society - the Republicans brought people around to that idea. Or the fact that after watching Great Society Democrat ideas destroy the black family and devastate inner cities that self-reliance and not government dependency would actually help people - a Republican idea.

Democrats have to defend their loyalty because so many of them were running around calling their country the worst in the world. Yes, dissent is patriotic - but only if you are an actual patriot and not a traitor as Alger Hiss was proved to be.

Here's a question for the latest Democrat candidate. Do his two children have human rights? And when exactly did they obtain them if they do?

If you are too gutless to stand up and say that you believe that any baby up to and after birth can be murdered, you are too gutless to be elected President of the United States. And the American people know it too.

William Arthur Simpson - 8/18/2008

Mr. Addell writes a refreshing piece about Adlai Stevenson, but he is victimized by the dumpster full of cliches that constitute the vocabulary of nearly all journalists and talking heads. A big one: Adlai Stevenson was the Loser in Democratic politics.
Rather, consider: Adlai Stevenson was the most successful modern governor Illinois has had. He rebuilt the state-county road system after the Depression and WWII, and he reorganized the public school system for all Illinois counties, and that included boosting at least three of the Normal School teacher training colleges, NIU, SIU, and ISNU into vigorous first-class public universities. Illinois, like its neighbor states Iowa and Minnesota, has a most progressive and successful public education system for the last 50 years, largely due to Gov. Stevenson's work. For these two achievements he is still widely remembered and praised, especially among downstate Republicans and
farmers. Even Saul Bellow was impressed by his stature.
Second, Stevenson established a post-war progressivism within the Democratic Party, along with Sen. Paul Douglas, Sen Paul Simon, Adlai III, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, and Rep. and Judge Abner Mikva.
That movement incorporates much of the research and political leadership of Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, it is electable, and it can very often work as instruments of governance.
Those are major achievements. Bury the "loser" cliche, and think
Adlai Stevenson liberalism. Barack Obama works directly out of that tradition. W. A. Simpson