One day recently, a first-year student was shown to her room at Princeton University, and was informed that it had once been “the room of Adlai Stevenson.” She smiled, tried to seem impressed, but then admitted that she had no idea of who that was. Should the student have known? Should we?
Many who follow politics do. Stevenson, governor of Illinois, ran for president twice against Dwight Eisenhower, in 1952 and 1956, losing both times, but nevertheless leaving an impression on American policy.
Harry Truman, who had become president in 1945 on Roosevelt’s death, could have run again in 1952, but chose not to. By 1952, he had already served almost two terms as president, and had not managed to end the Korean War, which had begun in June 1950.
Stevenson, born in 1900, came from a political family. He was named after a grandfather who had been vice president during Cleveland’s second term. Stevenson had spent years in government when he was elected governor of Illinois in 1948.
After Truman decided not to run, Stevenson was drafted by his party to run against Eisenhower, who had defeated Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio for the Republican nomination. For his running mate, Stevenson chose Sen. John Sparkman, of Alabama; Eisenhower chose Richard Nixon.
The issues were serious: the war, business/labor relations, communist sympathizers in the government. But for many, the contest boiled down to personalities. On one side was Ike, conquering hero of the war in Europe, but down to earth, and with a winning smile. On the other was Stevenson, a lawyer and an intellectual.
Looking back today, many observers think that Eisenhower would have easily beaten anyone who ran against him: Truman in 1952, had he chosen to run, or Kennedy in 1960, had Eisenhower been constitutionally able to run. But it was not apparent at the time.
Eisenhower could be garrulous; his handlers had to keep his statements short and focused. And Eisenhower, a native of Kansas, had to be photographed in just the right way or he could appear like any balding, aging Midwestern politician, like Robert Taft.
Stevenson was different. He was divorced and had not remarried. Divorce counted against a politician in those days. Had he been elected, his sister Buffie would have taken the role of first lady. Stevenson liked to discuss ideas and issues in detail. This may have been a mistake on the campaign trail.
Stevenson, too, was mostly bald, and two conservative columnists, the Alsop brothers, coined the term “egghead” for him. The term had the force of “elitist” today. Stevenson quipped, “Eggheads of the world, unite: We have nothing to lose but our yolks.” Stevenson’s wit did not appeal to everyone.
During the second campaign, Stevenson proposed a ban on testing atomic weapons in the atmosphere, and abolishing the draft. Richard Nixon attacked him, accusing Stevenson of jeopardizing national security. But later, under Kennedy, the limited nuclear test ban treaty went into effect, and in 1973, Nixon abolished the draft. Secretly, the Republicans had been considering both ideas.
On civil rights, Stevenson must be termed a minimalist. As governor, he desegregated the Illinois park system. He influenced the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which made it slightly easier for blacks to vote and serve on juries. He thought that if the issue had been calmly discussed beforehand, Eisenhower would not have had to send troops to Little Rock in 1957 to enforce integration. (Actually, Eisenhower had talked with Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, thought he had a deal, only to have Faubus renege.) In both presidential elections, all of Stevenson’s electoral votes came from the Deep South and border states.
Again in 1960, Stevenson tried for the nomination, and after Kennedy won, he hoped to be secretary of state. Dean Rusk got the job; Stevenson was named chief delegate to the United Nations, with cabinet rank. On Oct. 25, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, Stevenson scored a diplomatic coup when he showed that the Soviet Union had installed missiles in Cuba, despite the denials of the Soviet representative Valerian Zorin. Perhaps this was his best moment.
On July 14, 1965, female partner at his side, Stevenson dropped dead of a heart attack on a street in London.
So, what about our Princeton student? I think her instructors failed her; Stevenson was one of the remarkable runners-up of American history, behind Henry Clay and William Jennings Bryan.