The last of the beautiful losers.
Today we're quick to banish presidential losers—anyone got a forwarding address for Michael Dukakis? We exiled Walter Mondale to Japan and sighed in relief when Bill Bradley went into hiding. Even John McCain, who promised to evince some staying power in defeat, has faded with the onset of another critic of the system, Ralph Nader.
Yet one White House loser—a serial loser, at that—still haunts the political landscape: Adlai Stevenson. Every political season the pundits find some reason to resurrect him, invariably in a flattering light. (This week it was columnist William Raspberry's turn in the Washington Post.) Stevenson not only lost nobly; he made losing seem noble in and of itself.
Stevenson took two of the worst drubbings any presidential candidate has ever endured, by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, yet the defeats didn't taint him. On the contrary, they enveloped him in a lasting mystique. In the hearts of liberals, intellectuals in particular, Stevenson became—and in our political mythology he remains—a hero who went down fighting the good fight.
But why did liberal intellectuals lionize Stevenson? He wasn't all that much of a liberal, nor really an intellectual. Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, winners both, stood to the left of him (click
Born in 1900 to a prominent Illinois family (his grandfather and namesake was Grover Cleveland's vice president), Stevenson inherited the good-government worldview common to WASP-y aristocrats of the time. Along with its esteem for public service, this worldview contained a scorn for the messy business of politics. Yet as the journalist Theodore White once noted, "[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." With that attitude, you can retain your gentlemanly virtue, but you aren't going to score.
Stevenson emerged as a national figure after World War II as the reformist governor of Illinois. His record—cleaning up corruption, reforming welfare, building roads—was, in the New York Times' assessment, "that of a moderate reformer, a person of social conscience who is basically conservative in outlook." And when President Truman chose not to seek re-election in 1952, that record positioned Stevenson, then one of the few Democratic governors of a major state, as a contender for the U.S. presidency.
The problem was getting him to run. In January 1952, Truman summoned Stevenson to the White House to anoint him as successor. Stevenson, the president said, possessed the family name and the gubernatorial record and had strong credentials as a Cold Warrior to boot. But Stevenson wouldn't accept the golden baton. Yes, he wanted the office. But he had been planning to run in 1956, and what was more, he disliked the thought of dirtying himself in the primaries. Instead, he encouraged a "Draft Stevenson" movement—a viable route at the time—which ended up working. The backroom operators at the Democratic convention gave him the nod, believing his moderate image would most likely unite the splintering New Deal coalition of liberal professionals, Southerners, and urban ethnic workers.
Stevenson brought on board his campaign Bernard DeVoto, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and thus began his prolonged romance with the set that columnist Joseph Alsop famously dubbed the "eggheads." They came by the dozens to hear his celebrated speeches, full of finely crafted phrases and sophisticated witticisms. They laughed approvingly as he warned that the New Dealers might be replaced by the Car Dealers. They nodded knowingly as he scolded, "There are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions." (When McCain flung this sort of Stevensonian straight talk around during the campaign, he too was cheered for demonstrating his preference for truth over victory.) Stevenson's whole demeanor suggested that he meant to raise politics to a higher plane where reason and decency would prevail over the usual pandering, mudslinging, and emotional appeals. Of course, he was wrong. No match for the war hero Eisenhower, Stevenson was buried in a November avalanche, 442 electoral votes to 89. The Car Dealers rolled in.
By all rights, Stevenson should have been finished. But a funny thing happened on his way to oblivion. Defeat augmented his appeal. Continuing to tour the country, denouncing Joe McCarthy and forecasting a brighter America, he found he had inspired people: college students, left-of-center idealists, admirers of his cosmopolitanism, critics of the stultifying cultural conformity that was creeping over the land.
To mainstream Americans, Stevenson was an odd bird. He was divorced, and a Unitarian, and he talked funny. Mort Sahl joked that Adlai believed in the "Ten Suggestions" and that if Stevenson were in the Klan, he would burn a question mark on your front lawn. More vicious were slanders from McCarthy ("Alger—I mean, Adlai") and Richard Nixon ("Adlai the Appeaser ... who got a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment").
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.