Adlai Stevenson Begins His 1956 Presidential Campaign – Past Daily Reference Room
Adlai Stevenson, probably a name not many remember these days. Former Governor of Illinois who ran for President on the Democratic Party ticket; first in 152 and last in 1956. After suffering stinging defeats for both elections, Stevenson finally wound up as United Nations Ambassador from the U.S. – it would be the last office he would hold during his life, as it was cut short in 1965, the result of a massive heart attack.
In both the 1952 and 1956 elections, Stevenson was defeated in landslides by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination for a third time at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, but was defeated by Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. After his election, President Kennedy appointed Stevenson as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. He served from 1961 until his death. He died on July 14, 1965, from heart failure (after a heart attack) in London, following a United Nations conference in Switzerland. Following public memorial services in New York City, Washington, DC, and his childhood hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, he was buried in his family’s section in Bloomington’s Evergreen Cemetery.
The prominent historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who served as one of his speechwriters, wrote that Stevenson was a “great creative figure in American politics. He turned the Democratic Party around in the fifties and made JFK possible…to the United States and the world he was the voice of a reasonable, civilized, and elevated America. He brought a new generation into politics, and moved millions of people in the United States and around the world.” Journalist David Halberstam wrote that “Stevenson’s gift to the nation was his language, elegant and well-crafted, thoughtful and calming.” His biographer Jean H. Baker stated that Stevenson’s memory “still survives…as an expression of a different kind of politics – nobler, more issue-oriented, less compliant to the greedy ambitions of modern politicians, and less driven by public opinion polls and the media.” W. Willard Wirtz, his friend and law partner, once said “If the Electoral College ever gives an honorary degree, it should go to Adlai Stevenson.”
Early in 1952, while Stevenson was still governor of Illinois, President Harry S. Truman decided that he would not seek another term as president. Instead, Truman met with Stevenson in Washington and proposed that Stevenson seek the Democratic nomination for president; Truman promised him his support if he did so. Stevenson at first hesitated, arguing that he was committed to running for a second gubernatorial term in Illinois. However, a number of his friends and associates (such as George Wildman Ball) quietly began organizing a “draft Stevenson” movement for President; they persisted in their activity even when Stevenson (both publicly and privately) told them to stop. When Stevenson continued to state that he was not a candidate, President Truman and the Democratic Party leadership looked for other prospective candidates. However, each of the other main contenders had a major weakness. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee won most of the presidential primaries and entered the 1952 Democratic National Convention with the largest number of delegates, but he was unpopular with President Truman and other prominent Democrats. In 1950 Kefauver had chaired a Senate committee that traveled to several large cities and held televised hearings into organized crime. The hearings revealed connections between organized-crime syndicates and big-city Democratic political organizations, which led Truman and other Democratic leaders to oppose Kefauver’s bid for the nomination: “a machine politician and proud of it, [Truman] had no use for reformers who blackened the names of fellow Democrats.” Truman favored U.S. diplomat W. Averell Harriman, but he had never held elective office and was inexperienced in national politics. Truman next turned to his Vice-President, Alben Barkley, but at 74 years of age he was dismissed as being too old by labor union leaders. Senator Richard Russell Jr. of Georgia was popular in the South, but his support of racial segregation and opposition to civil rights for blacks made him unacceptable to Northern and Western Democrats. In the end Stevenson, despite his reluctance to run, remained the most attractive candidate heading into the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
At the Convention, Stevenson, as governor of the host state, was assigned to give the welcoming address to the delegates. His speech was so stirring and witty that it helped stampede his nomination, in spite of his continued protests that he was not a presidential candidate. In his welcoming speech he poked fun at the 1952 Republican National Convention, which had been held in Chicago in the same coliseum two weeks earlier. Stevenson described the achievements of the Democratic Party under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, but noted “our Republican friends have said it was all a miserable failure. For almost a week pompous phrases marched over this landscape in search of an idea, and the only idea that they found was that the two great decades of progress…were the misbegotten spawn of bungling, of corruption, of socialism, of mismanagement, of waste and worse…after listening to this everlasting procession of epithets about our [party’s] misdeeds I was even surprised the next morning when the mail was delivered on time. But we Democrats were by no means the only victims here. First they [Republicans] slaughtered each other, and then they went after us…perhaps the proximity of the stockyards accounts for the carnage.”
Following this speech, the Illinois delegation (led by Jacob Arvey) announced that they would place Stevenson’s name in nomination, and Stevenson called President Truman to ask if “he would be embarrassed” if Stevenson formally announced his candidacy for the nomination. Truman told Stevenson “I have been trying since January to get you to say that. Why should it embarrass me?” Kefauver led on the first ballot, but was well below the vote total he needed to win. Stevenson gradually gained strength until he was nominated on the third ballot. Historian John Frederick Martin says party leaders selected him because he was “more moderate on civil rights than Estes Kefauver, yet nonetheless acceptable to labor and urban machines—so a coalition of southern, urban, and labor leaders fell in behind his candidacy in Chicago.” Stevenson’s 1952 running mate was Senator John Sparkman of Alabama.
Stevenson accepted the Democratic nomination with an acceptance speech that, according to contemporaries, “electrified the delegates:”
When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an hour of history haunted with those gaunt, grim specters of strife, dissension, and materialism at home, and ruthless, inscrutable, and hostile power abroad. The ordeal of the twentieth century – the bloodiest, most turbulent age of the Christian era – is far from over. Sacrifice, patience, understanding, and implacable purpose may be our lot for years to come. … Let’s talk sense to the American people! Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions.
Although Stevenson’s eloquent oratory and thoughtful, stylish demeanor impressed many intellectuals, journalists, political commentators, and members of the nation’s academic community, the Republicans and some working-class Democrats ridiculed what they perceived as his indecisive, aristocratic air. During the 1952 campaign Stewart Alsop, a powerful Connecticut Republican, labeled Stevenson an “egghead”, based on his baldness and intellectual air. His brother, the influential newspaper columnist Joe Alsop, used the word to underscore Stevenson’s difficulty in attracting working-class voters, and the nickname stuck. Stevenson himself made fun of his “egghead” nickname; in one speech he joked “eggheads of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your yolks!” In his campaign speeches Stevenson strongly criticized the Communist-hunting tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, labeling “McCarthy’s kind of patriotism as a disgrace” and ridiculing right-wing Republicans “who hunt Communists in the Bureau of Wildlife and Fisheries while hesitating to aid the gallant men and women who are resisting the real thing in the front lines of Europe and Asia…they are finally the men who seemingly believe that we can confound the Kremlin by frightening ourselves to death.” In return, Senator McCarthy stated in a speech that “he would like to get on the Stevenson campaign trail with a club and…make a good and loyal American out of the governor.”
Unlike 1952, Stevenson was an announced, active candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1956. Initially, with polls showing Eisenhower headed for a landslide re-election, few Democrats wanted the 1956 nomination, and Stevenson hoped that he could win the nomination without a serious contest, and without entering any presidential primaries. However, on September 24, 1955, Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack. Although he recovered and eventually decided to run for a second term, concerns about his health led two prominent Democrats, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and New York Governor Averell Harriman, to decide to challenge Stevenson for the Democratic nomination. After being told by his aides that he needed to enter and win several presidential primaries to defeat Kefauver and Harriman, Stevenson entered the New Hampshire, Minnesota, Florida, and California primaries. He won New Hampshire, but was upset by Kefauver in the Minnesota primary, who successfully portrayed Stevenson as a “captive” of corrupt Chicago political bosses and “a corporation lawyer out of step with regular Democrats.” Stevenson next battled Kefauver in the Florida primary, where he agreed to debate Kefauver on radio and television. Stevenson later joked that in Florida he had appealed to the state’s citrus farmers by “bitterly denouncing the Japanese beetle and fearlessly attacking the Mediterranean fruit fly.” He narrowly defeated Kefauver in Florida by 12,000 votes, and then won the California primary over Kefauver with 63% of the vote, effectively ending Kefauver’s presidential bid.
At the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, former President Truman endorsed Governor Harriman, to Stevenson’s dismay, but the blow was softened by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s continued enthusiastic support. Stevenson easily defeated Harriman on the first ballot, winning his second Democratic presidential nomination. He was aided by strong support from younger delegates, who were said to form the core of the “New Politics” movement. In a bid to raise enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket, Stevenson made the unusual decision to leave the selection of his running mate up to the convention delegates. This set off a frantic scramble among several prominent Democrats to win the vice-presidential nomination, including Kefauver, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and Senator John F. Kennedy. After fending off a surprisingly strong challenge from Kennedy, Kefauver narrowly won the vice-presidential nomination on the second ballot. In his acceptance speech, Stevenson spoke of his plan for a “New America”, which included extending New Deal programs to “areas of education, health, and poverty.” He also criticized Republicans for trying to “merchandise candidates like breakfast cereal.”
Following his nomination, Stevenson waged a vigorous presidential campaign, delivering 300 speeches and traveling 55,000 miles (89,000 km); he crisscrossed the nation three times before the election in November. Robert F. Kennedy traveled with the Stevenson campaign, hoping to “take home some lessons on how to manage a presidential campaign.” Kennedy was deeply disillusioned by Stevenson’s campaign, later saying that “I thought it was ghastly. It was poorly organized…my feeling was that he had no rapport with his audience – no comprehension of what campaigning required, no ability to make decisions…In 1952 I had been crazy about him…Then I spent six weeks with him on the campaign and he destroyed it all.” Kennedy voted for Eisenhower in November. For their part, Stevenson and many of his aides resented Kennedy’s attitude during his stay with the campaign; Stevenson friend and aide George W. Ball recalled “My impression was that Bobby was a very surly and arrogant young man…he wasn’t doing any good for Adlai. I don’t know why we had him along.” The tension that developed between Stevenson and Robert Kennedy would have significant consequences for the 1960 presidential campaign, and for Stevenson’s relationships with both John and Robert Kennedy during President Kennedy’s administration.
To get an idea of the voice and style of Adlai Stevenson, here is his first campaign speech from the 1956 bid for the Presidency.
Any other comments or comparisons to present day politicians would be superfluous.