Adlai: the great one

Don't kick Adlai Stevenson around - not with me anyway. He was an idealist and had integrity. Furthermore, he was truly a candidate with a vision: Did you ever hear any of his speeches on foreign affairs? Look them up.

Or if Stevenson's name means little to you, I recommend that you read John Bartlow Martin's superb two-volume biography of the former Illinois governor whose grandfather was a vice president and whose eloquence reminded observers of Lincoln.

A former White House director of speechwriting under President Clinton - Michael Waldman - was giving it to Stevenson the other day in a Washington Post op-ed piece. And that's what has set me off. He contended that the same kinds of college-educated Democratic voters who were "madly for Adlai" are now "madly for Bradley." Adlai, he wrote, "was the hero of a generation of doomed idealists" whose "legacy is not so much a set of policies as a pose."

Mr. Waldman (who, obviously, was carrying water for Bradley's opponent, Vice President Gore,) particularly rankled when me when he expressed the view that in picking up the Stevenson legacy Bill Bradley now is heading down the path of losing his quest: Campaigning for "big ideas" in the Stevenson tradition, Waldman implies, just won't get Mr. Bradley anywhere.

In pointing out that Stevenson "was rejected by the public again and again" (as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956), Waldman would have us believe that who Adlai was and what he stood for didn't work for him and, hence, won't work for Bradley. I was watching those elections closely and have another perception. Had Stevenson not been running against that great war hero, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, I think he would have won in 1952. Indeed, it was the widespread view that voters had not just one, but two, outstanding candidates from whom to choose.

Now, 1956 was different. Ike strengthened his position by his performance, and Stevenson had lost that new, magic glitter. But Adlai was defeated for these reasons and not for what he was. He retained the respect of much of the public for his idealism and intelligence - and, oh yes, his oratory. No one - and that would include Waldman's former boss when he was at the height of his popularity - could have beaten Eisenhower. That's the real story of Stevenson's rejection.

Waldman also heaps scorn on Stevenson's reputation as a great speechmaker labeling it a "myth." I phoned William McCormick Blair Jr. - a former US ambassador to Denmark and the Philippines, and Stevenson's closest friend and adviser - about the Waldman article. Mr. Blair had just read it and was unamused. He said that Adlai's speeches - even when he was working with suggestions from speechwriters or drafts - were always, in the end, his own.

"He insisted on that," Mr. McCormick said, pointing out how often Adlai would work on a speech when he should have been out shaking hands. I saw that myself when Ohio's governor, Frank Lausche, got on the campaign train and Adlai never joined him, staying instead in his stateroom putting a speech together. Lausche - whose support Adlai badly needed - was miffed.

And Blair added this: "Once on a campaign trip between Buffalo and Cleveland, Stevenson made 16 whistle-stop speeches. They were all great speeches and each was different."

I also phoned another Stevenson aide and speechwriter, Willard Wirtz, later Labor secretary under Kennedy and Johnson. "Adlai liked to have a lot of ideas to think about," he said, "and then he went to work on his speech." Mr. Wirtz also commented on the "big differences" between Bradley and Stevenson: "They both went to Princeton. But while Bradley was the basketball hero, Adlai was editor of the college newspaper."

I, myself, have noted some similarities between the Bradley and Stevenson political approaches. Bradley has that same "detachment"- that's the best word I can come up with.

To the extent Bradley is perceived as being in the tradition of Stevenson, it will help and not hurt him. For a while Americans were caught up with Stevenson's vision, intellect, and wit. He was being widely quoted. And he was so highly regarded by so many. I won't let Clinton's top speechwriter misshape history.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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