The Stevensons: A Biography of an American Familyby Jean H. Baker
Jean H. Baker tells the compelling story of four generations of an American family and its most celebrated member, the high-minded, eloquent, and perennial also-ran icon of liberal politics, Adlai Ewing Stevenson II (1900-1965). The Stevensons is also a book about the relationship of a family to its times: With Baker's characteristically deft blend of the… See more details below
Jean H. Baker tells the compelling story of four generations of an American family and its most celebrated member, the high-minded, eloquent, and perennial also-ran icon of liberal politics, Adlai Ewing Stevenson II (1900-1965). The Stevensons is also a book about the relationship of a family to its times: With Baker's characteristically deft blend of the public and private, set on a broad canvas, the Stevenson story becomes an American saga.
Baker's biography "affords [Stevenson's] life a depth, historical and personal, that few other writers have acknowledged" (Kirkus Reviews).
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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On a bitter, windy morning in late December of 1947the kind of day for which Chicago is notoriousAdlai Ewing Stevenson 11 had fifteen minutes left to decide. The clock was running out on this grandson and son of Illinois politicians who, after fifteen years of intermittent public service in appointive federal jobs, wasn't certain he wanted the nomination. "If you don't run when they want you, they won't take you when you are ready," cautioned his Republican friend Hermon Smith, while the Democrat who thought he wanted to be a U.S. senator made up his mind about the Illinois governorship. A few blocks away, Jack Arvey was waiting.
Colonel Arvey, as he was known from his rank in the Illinois National Guard, needed recruits for his partisan battles, new men to be slated for high state offices by the Democratic State Central Committee and the Cook County Democratic Committee, which he controlled. Returned from four years in the U.S. Army, the bald, fifty-three-year-old son of Jewish immigrants from Poland was uncertain of his recently attained political power. As he probed the changing contours of American politics, Arvey needed winners. Independent candidates occasionally challenged the organization's choice in the spring primary, but rarely did the disciplined ranks of the Illinois Democrats break to nominate an insurgent. If Stevenson accepted, he would lead the Democratic ticket in next year's election. And if he won, Arvey's clout was assured.
Among its legacies World War II had shattered the certainties of domestic politics. The great Democratic general FranklinRoosevelt was dead; no one knew whether the voting coalition that had sent him to the presidency for four terms could survive under Harry Truman's leadership. Wars often converted loyal followers into restless idealistic independents searching for leaders capable of avoiding the catastrophes of their predecessors. The Chicago machine was already challenged by reformers who disliked the exchange features of an organization that traded jobs and economic support for votes. Civil servants overseeing federal programs increasingly controlled jobs that in the past had tied voters to the boss's choice. Moreover, the fading reputation of President Truman, whose administration sagged under the weight of the "mess" in Washington, eroded Arvey's authority.
A Chicago precinct captain and alderman of twenty years' duration, Arvey detected the emergence of a bloc of voters who differed from the faithful of his inner-city wards. These middle-class Democrats opposed patronage, believed in participating in politics not for gain but for good government, measured their votes according to the man and the issues, and proclaimed their pursuit of the public interest. In the Fifth Ward, near the University of Chicago, the newly organized Independent Voters of Illinois (whose name alone upset a party man like Arvey) seemed more concerned with the importance of transforming practical politics into a noble moralizing influence than with the concrete considerations of Arvey's world.
Before the war Americans had accepted politics as a profession, dispensing to its practitioners money, power, and the pleasure of playing the nation's greatest sport. But this new group of amateurs scorned such personal rewards. Unlike the elites who had served in top-level appointive positions during the New Deal and, when duty called, as dollar-a-year men in Washington's wartime agencies, they expected to contribute to the humble routines of local elections, from licking stamps to answering phones. As the partisan winds shifted toward the Republicans, Arvey understood that victory in the 1948 election might come to blue-ribbon candidates who could appeal to such citizens. The colonel intended to slate men "without any scars," men of reputation, unsullied by previous office holding, who could make the abstractions of peace, prosperity, and democracy credible not because of what they promised but because of who they were.
In the past, partisan Horatio Algers had scrambled up the ladders of office holding. Now neither they nor the ethnic representatives of precinct politics, the men whom the newspapers dismissed as party hacks, suited. Jack Arvey had already replaced Chicago's wartime mayor Edward Kelly with Martin Kennelly, a silver-haired insurance man lacking political experience but full of high-sounding platitudes. And with nearly a third of Cook County's votes now housed in suburban communities ringing the city, the standing decision for the Democrats that had made the city a customary party fiefdom was weakening. Richard Daley had lost the sheriff's office, and in the midterm elections of 1946 the Republicans had won a disproportionate twenty of Illinois's twenty-six congressional seats, a political shift reflected at the national level, where, for the first time since 1932, the Democrats had lost control of Congress. In 1947 Arvey placed his hopes on a possible ticket led by the returning war veteran and former alderman Paul Douglas for U.S. senator and the novice Adlai Stevenson for governor.
Still Stevenson hesitated. Before the war he had sought out appointive positions in the federal government. Understanding his veiled ambitions, his friends had urged his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 1942, although he had never run for any public office. When the Democrats chose instead a party man with more political experience, Stevenson was undismayed: "I never fancied myself as a combatant politico. . . ." Now he did, but for the Senate. As he paced back and forth across his law office muttering, "I am bothered, I am bothered," he wanted assurances that the mayor would support him with the get-out-the-vote passion that commanded the six-figure majorities necessary to offset downstate Republicanism. Arvey's offer was not a surprise, but Stevenson wanted more time to decide.
From his family's experience, Stevenson knew that Illinoisians rarely sent Democrats to the governor's mansion in Springfield. Only three had been elected since the Civil War, and his grandfather Adlai Ewing Stevenson I, who had run a strong campaign in 1908, had not been among them. He did not intend to be Arvey's sacrifice to the two-term Republican governor Dwight Green, or part of the purge of liberal New Dealers intended by conservative Democrats in a Republican year. Nor was he convinced that he wanted to be in electoral politics at all, remembering, as he said to an aunt, "father's admonition to keep out of politics."
By his reckoning of elections as educational debates over past policies and future intentions, Stevenson believed that as a senator he could inform Americans on national and international issues. Like many Americans, Stevenson had never engaged state issues. In Washington, however, he could contribute his accumulated experience from appointive positions in the Navy and State Departments as legal counsel and personal assistant to the secretary of the navy, and after the war as adviser and alternate delegate to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, positions that his wife mordantly characterized as indistinguishable and unmemorable. "Poor Adlai," Ellen said more than once, "he seems destined to be someone's assistant forever."
Even as the Republican incumbent Senator C. Wayland Brooks waved his bloody shirt from World War I (once disrobing to show a startled audience where a German bullet had entered his back as he recounted the story of winning a Croix-de-Guerre), Stevenson wondered why the Democrats must truckle to such demagoguery by also nominating a veteran, in this case the former Marine private (later lieutenant colonel) Paul Douglas. Douglas did not even have to undress to show his wounded arm, a recent battle scar from his service as a fifty-two-year-old combat Marine on Okinawa. But Douglas preferred to be governor, although party gossip held that the Marine veteran was too independent to defer to Arvey on patronage matters. Did this mean that Stevenson must cater to Arvey and his machine? If so, he wanted no part of such an arrangement.
There was uncertain personal business as well. Several months after he returned from his post as alternate delegate to the United Nations, on February 5, 1947, Stevenson had taken stock in the diary he kept mostly on trips: "Why don't I do what I want to do and like to do and is worthwhile doing? . . . Am 47 todaystill restless; dissatisfied with myself. What's the matter? Have everything. Wife, children, money, successbut not in law profession. Too much ambition for public recognition; too scattered in interests; how can I reconcile life in Chicago as lawyer with consuming interest in foreign affairspublic affairs and desire for recognition and position in that field? Prospect of Senate nomination sustains & at same time troubles, even frightens me. Wish I could at least get tranquil & make Ellen happy and do go[od] humble job at law." The malaise continued: Is it political stature I need or professional?" Or was it family serenity? And was the latter possible?
In 1947 Ellen Borden and Adlai Stevenson had been married for nineteen years. In 1941 Ellen Stevenson had threatened a divorce when her husband left Chicago on one of his wartime missions abroad. Bitterly she complained of incompatibilities and absences that had begun in the 1930s. After the war Ellen's sister had demanded a conference with Stevenson to talk about his "situation with Ellen." But just as Adlai avoided his wife's threats (sometimes considering them no more than late evening whiskey talk), so he told everyone who would intrude on his personal affairs that "all was well."
It wasn't. At some point in the 1930s, possibly while his wife was having an affair, Stevenson had revived a friendship with Alicia Patterson Guggenheim, the publisher of Newsday, the Long Island daily. Patterson, the tiny red-haired daughter of a newspaper family, had exchanged Chicago's debutante ballrooms for the frenzied press rooms of Newsday, the paper she and her husband Harry Guggenheim had founded in 1940 to service the burgeoning Levittowns of Suffolk and Nassau Counties. As politics ran in Stevenson's blood, so journalism ran in hersher great-grandfather Joseph Medill had bought the Chicago Tribune before the Civil War; her aunt Cissie published the Washington Times-Herald; her cousin "Uncle" Bertie McCormick the Chicago Tribune; and her father, Joseph Medill Patterson, the New York Daily News. By the 1930s Alicia, who had lasted only one year in boarding school, had been married three times, had learned her trade as a reporter, and had fallen in love with Adlai Stevensona relationship he recalled in 1949 as ten years of all he'd "known of love and genuine personal concern."
Stevenson admired the forty-four-year-old Alicia Patterson's direction: "I marvel at you more and more. You've made a great successin the very field I had once dreamed of working." But this relationship was more than the mutual professional attraction of an ambitious newspaperwoman and an emerging politician. Stevenson was smitten. "I don't suppose love and envy can meet. Maybe I'm confused with wanting any direction. Or perhaps it's wanting you rather than your objective. Anyway the love is hard enough without the other, whatever it is."
If Adlai Stevenson was bored by the law, uncertain about his future, and available to other women, and if Ellen Stevenson was isolated from the Chicago arts world she craved as her place of distinction and ambivalent about her marriage, the couple still shared their three sons, along with the pleasures of their country estate in Libertyville, with sheep and horses on seventy-two acres of soybeans, pasture, and lawn. Nearby in the living rooms of Lake Forest, they both starred in the social life of Chicago's premier suburb.
In a few of these living rooms and on Stevenson's own tennis court, his friends had become excited about his candidacy, a campaign from which he had kept a discreet distance. Even before its enthusiasts had officially organized as the Committee to Elect Adlai Stevenson U.S. Senator, they had never mistaken his self-described "casual indifference" for noncompliance, and had worked on. Lou Kohn, the lawyer whom Stevenson acknowledged as his "most ardent backer for the Senate," told everyone who would listen how during his service as a naval officer in the South Pacific he had concluded that the United States must lead the postwar world in order to prevent another war. Returned to Chicago, Kohn remembered Stevenson from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and found one answer. Led by Kohn, the eager band of Stevensonites sought out Arvey, who in 1945 had never heard of Adlai Stevenson. Arvey also noted the Republican backgrounds of his promoters and, among the group's few Democrats, the lack of any previous "party activity."
Some of Adlai's blue-blooded amateurs did not know any Democrats (and were proud of it) besides the partisan who had so gracefully assimilated into their circle as a congenial friend and whom they now zestfully touted for public office. Adlai's Amateurs had other attributes, including money, time, and links to other rich Americans. With admirers like these, Stevenson hardly needed an apprenticeship in some lesser office to attract independents and Republicans.
As noon on December 29, 1947the hour of Arvey's deadline and the moment of Stevenson's destinyapproached, Adlai Ewing Stevenson measured his fate: the certainty of the 1948 Democratic gubernatorial nomination against a remote future chance for a senatorial nomination; the focusing of his scattered public ambitions against his marriage and the unfettered pleasures of private life in Libertyville; his obligation to friends whose efforts on his behalf he had never discouraged, and had sometimes encouraged, against an established career as a partner in a well-known law firm and a reputation as a Chicago civic leader; the influence of party leaders over his future against his autonomy as a government in-and-outer; his uncertainty about his ability to be a successful governor against past successes; and finally the Stevenson heritage of public service against the anonymity of a private citizen.
At five minutes before twelve, Adlai Stevenson gave his answer. Later he provided a more memorable explanation. Now he simply said as he picked up the telephone, "Well, l guess you're right. It's now or never. I'll do it." Although he called Arvey, the circumstances of Stevenson's selection confirmed his belief that he had been chosen to run. He had not insinuated himself into electoral politics. "Well, the fact of the matter is, l didn't seek the job," he informed McLean County Democrats a few weeks later, attempting to establish his independence and difference from greedy politicians twice in this speech and often in the early days of the campaign. "I didn't ask to be put on the ticket." To Ellen's uncle he wrote that he had "finally surrendered to the blandishments of the politicians and agreed to run."
That night on the train to Lake Forest, there was jubilation among the commuters. The news had traveled quickly along La Salle Street, from Arvey's law office at One La Salle to Democratic headquarters, on the third floor of the Morrison Hotel, and upward through the glass-encased corporate and legal offices in the skyscrapers straddling Chicago's main commercial boulevard. At home when neighbors and friends gathered, Ellen Stevenson stayed apart from the celebration but came downstairs to read her poems to those assembled to congratulate her husband, not listen to her poetry. In a later conference with Arvey, she agreed not to divorce her husband until the campaign was over. "I am in it after several dreadful days of indecision and stalling," Stevenson acknowledged to his sister, Buffie Ives. "Whether I've the strength, thick skin & capacity to at least make a good race I don't know, but at least I've got to try now for 10 fearful months. . . . I don't feel very gay this New Year's Day."
It was now Arvey's turn to worry. In the calendar of Illinois politics, candidates came to be slated before the state central committee, itself chosen by elected delegates from county conventions. At this meeting party lieutenants talked patronage and Democratic politics. Here Paddy Bauler, who ran a tavern in the Forty-third Ward and who believed everlastingly that "Chicago ain't ready for reform," gossiped about the Democracy's future with Paul Powell, corn farmer from downstate Johnson County who held gubernatorial aspirations and who, after a lifetime in Illinois politics, left a cash estate of $800,000 in shoeboxes and his bowling bag. In early January, Stevenson appeared before what he called "the politicians." Arvey feared his reluctant amateur would be too removed, too highbrow, and too much the novice.
But it was not the Lake County socialite or chagrined senatorial hopeful who appeared that night. Instead, a smart campaigner conveying integrity and conviction laid out the nonpartisan terrain on which he intended to fight. From the beginning Stevenson separated himself from the endeavors of party members, at the same time praising the professionals with characteristic sensitivity and paternalism. "I have a bad case of hereditary politics, and I hope by associating with veterans like you to contract an equally bad case of practical politics!" Despite his unearned prize, he acknowledged that he was not one of "the organized, militant shock troops of the Democratic party in Illinois who have carried the standards of the people's party for so long in adversity as well as triumph." Then, with a touch of the heretical candor that forever marked his political style, Stevenson implied that he would campaign in the name of nonpartisan efficiencyfor good men who might not be Democrats in state office, for a new constitution that might not protect the organization, and for the civil service cloture of patronage jobs that formerly bound the "shock troops" to the Democratic party. Campaigning for the Illinois Senate seat, Paul Douglas complained that Stevenson's message was no more than "noblesse oblige on the part of the privileged. This did not appeal to the miners and hard-scrabble farmers who were having trouble getting enough to wear."
Stevenson's campaign for the governorship began in the dark and cold and snow of an Illinois winter, with his chances as dismal as the weather. By spring when the planting began and the long horizons held a mist of color, and he had received a good turnout in the uncontested primary, his chances for election had improved. The Republican incumbent, Dwight Green, felt it necessary to shorten his Florida vacation to respond to Stevenson. By summer when a withering hot dry spell set in and the bookies in Mason County, in central Illinois, were giving seven-to-five odds on Green the two candidates were providing Illinois voters, as is the way of American politics, mirror images of themselves and their concerns. With tireless public ebullience, the bald-pated, rumpled, self-proclaimed amateur in Brooks Brothers button-down shirts talked and talked, worried about contributions, and sometimes helped install the red, white, and blue Stevenson banners at the county fairs and courthouse squares where he spoke. "Four counties a day is a fine education," he informed Alicia Patterson in September, "but I don't recommend it for human beings."
Unknown to most Illinoisians, who had forgotten his family, Stevenson squirmed when after his calls for better government the first question was how to pronounce his first name. In Lincoln, a small town in central Illinois, he spoke of ending corruption and especially gambling, before an audience that couldn't hear him for the shouts from the racetrack in the background. Some days Stevenson suffered six catfish dinners, and on others went unfed. Once he confused local sentiments on alcohol and had to be routed out of bed to visit Nauvoo's five taverns. At one county fair the banner across Main Street read "Evening Program-Band Concert/Parade of Prize SwineAdlai Stevenson, Democratic Candidate for Governor." In Paddy Bauler's Forty-third Ward, in Chicago, when some of the faithful could not understand the candidate, Bauler yelled from the rear, "Attaboy, Professor, give us some more of those words!" Paul Douglas's campaign symbol this political season was a basket of food to show the necessity for postwar price controls; Adlai Stevenson's was a yellow legal pad, which thereafter became the insignia of his public career and on which he scribbled his good-government messages to the people.
Meanwhile Stevensons's opponent looked like the professional politician he was. With the abundant, well-groomed silver hair that Americans craved in their officials and a round handsome face unfurrowed by any state problems even after seven years as governor, Green reminded audiences of his crusading past as a U.S. attorney responsible for the conviction of Al Capone. By 1949 Green needed to cloak himself in reform clothes to offset criticism that members of his administration had ties to Capone's successors. The governor said nothing of the angry veterans who had picketed the state house for better housing and more benefits. Nor did he discuss the disastrous explosion at Centralia, in southern Illinois, where just a year earlier over a hundred miners had died. During the campaign Stevenson made a charge he later regretted: "Green promised to protect the lives and safety of the miners at Centralia and he let 111 of them die. He ignored the appeals of miners for protection while his mine inspectors collected campaign funds from the operators."
Green had no Stevenson record to attack; instead, he tied his opponent to the national Democratic party of Truman administration scandals, bigspending New Deal programs, and softness on communism. He excoriated the United Nations and called his opponent a "striped pants diplomat," a charge that backfired when the Chicago News printed a picture of the governor in the striped pants of the male aristocracy's haute couture. Green's issues were not especially Illinois concerns, since this governor had vicepresidential ambitions. He had been chosen to give the keynote address at the Republican convention, which instead chose two other governors for its national ticket, Thomas Dewey of New York for president and Earl Warren of California for vice president.
While the handsome incumbent who knew state and local affairs talked dully of national budgets and foreign policy, "Stevie" (the nickname the downstate politicians preferred to the unpronounceable, uncommon Adlai) concentrated on Illinois. The veteran of six years of federal and international service now talked about the state affairs he had long avoided. With an eloquence that soon gained national attention, Stevenson offered a model for good government. He attacked the corruption of Green's administration; he promised more efficient state government, better and fewer officials, higher pension and welfare payments, and a new constitution; he inveighed against the citizenry's sins of indolence, self-interest, and excessive partisanship. Throughout he grounded his campaign in the sentiments of his hero Woodrow Wilson, who, in his 1910 campaign for the New Jersey governorship, had also tried to raise state affairs to a compelling level of moral regeneration. And like Wilson, who had also been chosen to bring respectability to a state ticket, Stevenson declared his independence from both party and politicians.
On some social issues Stevenson ran slightly behind the Democratic platform, though the differences were hard to detect from his adjective-filled, value-laden speeches. To a black audience he committed himself to a state Fair Employment Practices Act, "to make our righteous proclamations of economic equality of opportunity something more than pious words"; he promised a civil rights division in the Attorney General's Office. But he dismissed the need for any new civil rights laws, urging only enforcement of the old ones, and his FEPC lacked any powers to ensure compliance. Along with most northern Democrats in 1948, Adlai Stevenson stood staunchly and rhetorically against racial discrimination in education, an end that did not yet require a statement on implementation. To the women of Illinois he offered equal pay for equal work, and a gentleman's paternalism conveyed in his acknowledgment, as if he were speaking to foreigners, that his wife and mother were women.
Throughout the campaign, Stevenson one-liners stung: we will clean house of "Greed, Grime and Green and the state house gang." He called the governor dirty names: "Bertie's Boy," "McCarthy" Green, and "Governor Greed." He coined a new word, "plunderbund," to describe Green's malfeasance. He filled a black notebook with alliterative slams"perfidious Pete," "Dwight the blight," "Petethe man who never said no to a payroller and never said yes to honest government." He was funny, self-deprecatory, and, especially in the beginning, long-winded and long-worded. His comment that Illinois had game wardens who had never been closer to a quail than "Ananias to the truth" sent some listeners to their dictionaries and others to an understanding that this candidate was not one of "the boys." Later the gibe reappeared in a more populist form as more "game wardens than rabbits."
Stevenson listened, learned, and improved. In these days before political consultants, his tiny campaign staff included mostly journalists, who, with the cynicism of their trade, recognized his weaknesses: his voice was too high and too patrician. He sounded, one decided, like the movie actor Ronald Coleman with the tinge of a midwestern accent. He paused in the wrong places and lost his punch lines. And he was, according to one reporter, "too painfully eager."
When even his admiring sister, Buffie Ives, told him that he had put a Pontiac audience to sleep, Stevenson shortened his words and paragraphs and eventually his speeches. "Keep your talks down to fifteen minutes," advised his campaign manager, Jim Mulroy, "and always end optimistically." Yet the jokes and the silver-tongued self-derogation remained a graceful contrast to Green's sober self-congratulation. If he was Green's nameless member of the left-leaning, striped-pants brigade of diplomats who had given Eastern Europe away to the Communists at Yalta, the governor was for him "the third-term candidate of the Greed Gang."
As Stevenson labored over his talks in the backseat of the car that bumped along the roads of Illinois (which he promised to improve), he worried about philosophical issues that few candidates ever considered. To an audience in Peoria, he contemplated the nature of the electoral process and "the illusive business of finding [his] way to the heart of the average manwhen there is no such thingand . . . the human heart is often encased in a pocketbook." Always an ardent self-critic, Stevenson decided that he could impress his listeners, but not excite them. Nor was he pleased with his radio performances, which at $525 for fifteen minutes outraged his frugality. In his promotional films the lights bounced from his unpowdered forehead like the headlights of a car off a water slick. In profile, his prominent nose overwhelmed his other features until his managers advised confronting the cameras full-face.
And all the while, as politicians do, Stevenson reassured his private self publicly. For personal reasons he had nearly deferred his candidacy. But now life in the public eye had become the central endeavor of a man later described by his son Borden as "enormously insecure." His messages spoke to his dilemmas. Supported by the most notorious machine in American history, Stevenson threw vitriol on his opponent's statehouse gang and its connections to the remnants of Capone's organization. Chosen by the boss of the Cook County Democratic Committee, who gave office for favors, he criticized his opponent's version of the same process. Engaged in winning the people's favor in a process that exhausted and irritated him, Stevenson reflected on civic virtue. His was the high road: "Those who treat politics and morality apart will never understand the one or the other." Yet it was hard for Stevenson to keep these two together while a political mendicant on a campaign marked by sharp, denigrative attacks on the vulnerable Green.
In his distaste for the exchange aspects of the American electoral system, which traded political promises (and sometimes jobs, contracts, and even money) for votes, Stevenson the Democrat emerged as Stevenson the nonpartisan, concerned, do-gooding progressive. Whatever he was, he was not a politician. "The good of the whole sometimes transcends normal party allegiance," he declared, appealing to his fellow voters "not so much in the name of a Democratic candidate but as just another citizen." But as that private citizen, he sometimes acted as if he was "off-duty" as a politician, forgetting to pick up restaurant checks or greet the people with the camaraderie of most seekers of office, who so easily established commonality with the voters.
Nor was Adlai Stevenson comfortable with the attention given to personal matters: "the way I tie my necktie, whether I prefer jelly or jam. . . . A few weeks ago some very political gentlemen took my manager aside downstate and asked him a little sheepishly if he had objection to suggesting to me in some delicate, inoffensive manner that I wear a different hat." Hoping to retain his privacy, Stevenson preferred discussion of the issues along with criticism of his opponent's record as he tested his virtue in a potentially corrupt endeavor. Such a public style was good politics in a Republican state, but it was also a private comfort.
As his marriage collapsed, Stevenson narrated the cautionary tale of his life. This political campaign, he told listeners in Waukegan, was a discussion of "our intimate family problems in Illinois." He mixed public and private worlds: "I can readily understand why [the people of Illinois] want a new Governor, but I am compelled to confess that my wife can't understand why they should want me!" "You can't have everything you want," he warned voters growing accustomed to expansive promises from their leaders.
Adlai Stevenson was advising himself because, as a married man who had been taught that marriage was forever, he had fallen in love with Alicia Patterson. Laboring over his speeches, Stevenson introduced his dilemma with dark images of illness and pessimism that hedged his political promises and that conveyed his family problems: "Our nation is very sick in the very large and very important part known as Illinois." "The world is troubled and frightened as never before." His distress was obvious in a speech to the Chicago Immigrants Protective League: "Must we forever foul our own nest; must we forever corrupt the mind and the spirit to serve personal ends?" At the end of the campaign he promised a victory or a broken heart in the attempt.
In the private life that extended into his public affairs, though he wished to separate the two, Adlai Stevenson found purpose. One night from a third-rate hotel in Urbana, he "toppled" into bed after the "last of the politicians and professors" had left and wrote Alicia Patterson of the rigors of campaigning: he would leave for Danville in the morning "and so on and on to the end of time or until my sins are expiatedI wonder what the hell I'm doing and why and then I think of you and that you think it's good and worthwhile and wouldn't love me if I didn't behave this way and then I get up and go at it again."
In mid-September the campaign came to Bloomington, the central Illinois town that had been home to five generations of Stevensons. Stevenson had opened his quest for the governorship there in February. Now, seven months later, an old-fashioned torchlight parade with floats and speeches in the courthouse square was planned. In a modern resurrection of the partisan ritual that had been the culmination of nineteenth-century campaigns, horse-drawn wagons had been replaced by the vintage Model T's, "Hummers," and Reos that Stevenson's parents and their generation had driven along the shady, sometimes muddy streets of Bloomington in the first decade of the twentieth century. The chamber of commerce financed a float; so did the railroad shop workers. The Bloomington Women's Club featured a member dressed in the wedding dress of the candidate's mother, an ornate affair of ivory satin with the elaborate puff sleeves and pinched waist of Helen Davis Stevenson's time. Someone counted fifteen floats, sixty horses, twenty-five antique cars, thirty-seven motorcycles, and one hundred homemade torchlights of kerosene in beer cans.
But no one wore the Democratic uniforms that had been such an essential part of the nineteenth-century understanding that partisans were an army en route to do battle against an enemy. Nor did the crowd of eighteen thousand line up as a military division with its officers directing the order of march, its soldiers singing campaign songs, as they had to Adlai Stevenson I. Instead, there was a languid rendition of "If you knew Stevie, like we know Stevie /Oh! Oh! Oh! what a man / He so outclasses his opposition/ Who is just another politician / Stevie's a statesman." When Stevenson spoke, the crowd listened passively without the noisy exchanges that characterized the partisan involvement of the witnessing crowd of an earlier public culture.
However forced, the connection of past and present, family and community, was apparent. Even Ellen Stevenson, who had made few appearances after she informed a luncheon meeting of the Democratic women of Illinois that she was and would remain a Republican, had agreed to come and to dress in the bonnet and ankle-length dress of some imprecise earlier age. Before the parade made its way from Grandfather Adlai Stevenson's former house in Franklin Park to the courthouse square in the center of town (Ellen's Model T broke down in an explosion of steam, and she had to walk), a crowd of neighbors overflowed onto the sidewalk of 1316 East Washington Street. This was the house and lawn of Buffie Stevenson Ives, the candidate's sisterand the place where Adlai Stevenson had lived from 1907 until 1916, when he went to boarding school in the East.
Returned from Europe in 1939 after her husband's retirement from the consular service, Elizabeth Ives (whose nickname, along with so much in her life, had been bestowed by her younger brother) had bought the house from her parents' estate. Thereafter she kept what family members called "1316" as it had been during the Bloomington childhood she had shared with her brother. Her mother's soothing lavender still decorated one of the four upstairs bedrooms, and in the front living room and side porch, shaded now by the oaks, pines, and a gingko planted by Helen Stevenson before World War I, the furniture and the royal red damask upholstery were identical to those her mother preferred. For Buffie 1316 represented a tangible link to a past that she also preserved in the letters of previous generations now carefully typed and elegantly bound. In the attic and the back room on the second floor, manila folders and file cases overflowed with earlier chapters of a family story of which she was this generation's archivist. On this day dressed in a Quaker bonnet and the dress of her maternal grandmother, and holding the sign "Pioneer 1830," Buffie intended to play a supporting role in the future chapters of the Stevenson story.
Amid the tradition some innovations were apparenta popular radio host circulated through the crowd on the lawn interviewing those who had known the candidate in his youth. To save time the candidate had temporarily abandoned his slow-moving automobile caravan for the train. He arrived from Chicago with an entourage that included influential leaders of the Democratic party. At first they had written off as a loser this candidate who disarmingly characterized his efforts as "an amateur's pilgrimage through the political jungle of Illinois." But now the politicians suspected an upset and wanted to see for themselves.
Most of the local well-wishers were Republicans; McLean County rarely deviated from its almost century-long attachment to the Republican party. Its prosperous farmers had refused even the New Deal appeals of Roosevelt, though Bloomington had gone Democratic in 1932 and 1936. Still, the Stevensons were well known in this community. A few members of the crowd could remember the parades and rallies held sometimes to honor and sometimes to promote the various candidacies of Stevenson 1. Some could dimly recall his losing campaigns for the vice presidency in 1900 and for the Illinois governorship in 1908. More remembered when the current candidate's father, Lewis Stevenson, campaigned for secretary of state in 1916. Still others connected the candidate to the region's most influential newspaper, the Bloomington Pantagraph, a maternal legacy from the Republican side of the family that had, just this time, put blood before party habit by endorsing Stevenson for governor and, to the irritation of Paul Douglas, no one else on the Democratic ticket.
To this audience, as he stood on the wooden platform that commanded the courthouse square, Adlai Stevenson described the virtues of heartland America with its ideals of "friendliness, belief in the Republic, trust in the democratic principlefaith in the futurerespect for the pastprogress along the path that our ancestors blazed." It was the kind of political sermon at which Bloomington's favorite son excelled. Stevenson would never be more eloquent than he was that afternoon as he gave the sentimental lesson of his childhood to his former neighbors: "that in quiet places, reason abounds; that in quiet people there is vision and purpose; that many things are revealed to the humble that are hidden from the great." Through words and delivery, he conveyed what modern politicians in an age without the compass of parties must: a superior character who deserved office. Without artifice, private sentiment merged with public intentions, however vague, in the self-revelation that postwar politics increasingly required. Stevenson concluded humbly by expressing the hope that he could measure up to the Bloomington-instilled virtues of "self-respect, humanity and friendliness." Nowhere did he mention the Democratic party. Nor did he mention that this particular son of the prairie had left for Chicago as soon as he could.
The Bloomington rally was the turning point of Adlai Stevenson's 1948 gubernatorial campaign. The Chicago Democrats who had traveled to Bloomington now untied their purse strings to support a candidate most had earlier dismissed. Along with four-figure gifts from several Chicago wards, the Democratic Central Committee contributed $10,000, which disturbed Adlai's Amateurs, though Stevenson's campaign fund of $175,000 was much less than that of Green. "You are asking the independent voters of Illinois to vote for you because there is a corrupt machine," complained Jane Dick, a Lake Forest confidante who questioned the candidate's independence after accepting such "dubious" support.
This was neither the first nor the last advice Jane Dick would deliver to Adlai Stevenson. As wealthy, blond Jane Warner, she had danced with Stevenson in the debutante ballrooms of Chicago in the late 1920s; after her marriage to Edison Dick, heir to the A. B. Dick Company, makers of business machines, she had dined with him in the chic North Shore Casino Club in the 1930s. Unlike most society women, Dick had worked at the city's legendary Hull House, where Stevenson was on the board. Preferring politics and Adlai Stevenson to bridge and garden clubs, she had become a charter member of Adlai's Amateurs, with an official role during the campaign as cochair of the women's division.
The hardworking Stevenson took the money and gained in the polls, even though Truman's support against the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, remained fixed at a mere 30 percent. By November the gamblers whom Stevenson had vowed to put out of business were offering even odds on Green and Stevenson. But the national press, including the New York Times, predicted the Republicans would retain the governorship, just as it believed, along with most observers, that Dewey would beat Truman. Yet all were impressed with the man Newsweek described as "the friendly, earnest candidate [who] visited almost every lunch wagon and curbstone from little Egypt in Southern Illinois to the North Shore along Lake Michigan, making as many as a dozen speeches in a single night."
On November 2, 1948, Adlai Stevenson was elected governor of Illinois by what was at that time the largest margin in the state's history. On election night, when the press finally caught up with the victor and asked whether he thought the returns were going well, Stevenson responded that he had been out to dinner and out of touch. "Is it going well?" he inquired of an astonished reporter, revealing again that nonchalance so foreign to most politicians. With 58 percent of the total vote, he led the Democratic ticket, as Illinois Republicans abandoned their party and voted for the man, not the organization. Stevenson carried Bloomington by 2,000 votes, and in a familiar pattern of postwar voting, the citizens split their ballots to favor Dewey over Truman by nearly the same margin. The winner was especially proud of his downstate showing, although the disciplined soldiers of Arvey's machine had provided 60 percent of his statewide vote. In Arvey's Twenty-fourth Ward, which had earned a reputation as the Gibraltar of the Democracy, 99 percent of the 28,000 voters cast their ballots for the man Arvey touted as our "golden nugget in the backyard." Stevenson was not surprised that he had failed to carry his home county of Lake; as Arvey had predicted, suburban voters were Republicans. Stevenson hardly noticed what later came to concern him: a declining turnout, which, despite population increases, was less than in 1940 and 1944.
In a corollary to the presidential coattail, Stevenson served as a political front-loader, bulldozing Truman before him. The president's statewide margin was a skimpy 33,000 votes; Stevenson's was an abundant 570,000 on a ballot that did not include this presidential year's minor parties: Henry Wallace's Progressives, Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats, and Norman Thomas's Socialists. Stevenson's majority was enough to earn a congratulatory note from Harry Truman, who recognized in the new Illinois governor the votegetting ability that, especially after his startling defeat of Dewey, the president respected. Stevenson answered with the earnestness that sometimes overrode his worldliness: "Command me if I can ever be of any service."
Green's record helped Stevenson to the extent that elections are referendums on past policies and administrations; so too did the two-term governor's ambitions for the third term, for which Republicans despised Franklin Roosevelt. Stevenson did especially well in the downstate counties whose support acknowledged his small-town, Protestant background, though by 1948 he had lived twice as long in Chicago as he had in Bloomington. Republicans did not feel as if they were voting for a Democrat, so effective was Stevenson's pledge as "just another citizen" that party politics and good government were divisible. He benefited as well from the suspicions of downstate farmers who heard Dewey's tepid endorsements of farm supports. Stevenson also won because of his tireless campaign and his reform message. "He might have been reluctant to go for it at first," one reporter commented, "but once committed, he fought as if his survival depended on the outcome."
In one year the self-proclaimed good citizen preoccupied with international affairs and ambivalent about his future had lost his status as an occasional visitor to public service. As governor of the fourth-largest state in the union, he would over the next four years exchange questions about the United Nations and deteriorating Soviet-American relations for considerations of roads, mental health, pensions, and coal mines. As an elected official, he would also surrender his privacy for public scrutiny, and he would lose his wife.
The hundreds of postelection messages included one from Alicia Patterson, who was in Germany. Sending her love and congratulations, she wanted introductions to European leaders whom Stevenson knew from his work at the United Nations. The new governor responded with exuberance and a characteristically plaintive note: "I carried 111. by 565,000 plusnever anything like it in history515,000 ahead of Truman and 180,000 ahead of the closest man on the Democratic ticket. Now I'm really in trouble."
Rashly the governor-elect considered visiting Alicia Patterson in Paris, where she was covering international events in a tumultuous year marked by the American airlift to Berlin and a national debate over postwar aid to Europe. Discretion held the day. Instead, after a short holiday with his sister and brother-in-law in North Carolina, covered, to his chagrin, by the press, Stevenson acknowledged both the joy in his fulfilled "dream of this Gov. business" and the tedium of the "exacting preparations . . . staff, research, conferences, appointments to major jobs, patronage."
He showed no ambivalence about what he felt for Alicia. After three husbands she had declared that she had never loved anyone but him. "Is it really true my angelor was it just a girlish explosion that you might have better spared a sensitive passionate governor. We must talk of that and ten thousand other things that seem more important than cabinet appointments in Illinois. . . . Somewhere the sun is shiningand you're in ita pool of bright light, your hair is glistening and reddish and tumbling all about your shoulders, your delicate little face serene and your eyes half shut in reverie. And in a moment I'm going to kiss you and you're going to be all alive again." In this letter the newly elected governor offered a hopeful motto for the challenges of his private and public life: "There's nothing we can't do if we want to enough and we are wise enough."
Meet the Author
Jean Harvey Baker is the author of many books on nineteenth-century American history. She is a professor of history at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.
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