Tales of Adlai
Books about Illinois’s nearly President
April 8, 1976
In some ways John Bartlow Martin’s two-volume biography of Adlai Stevenson (the first of which is reviewed here) set a standard that none of the future biographers of Illinois public figures have been able to match. It was an inside story, for one thing; for another, Stevenson was an unmatched subject. It is, perforce, also a history of Illinois politics of the period, which adds to its riches for the reader.
Reviewed: Adlai Stevenson of Illinois by John Bartlow Martin, Doubleday, 1976 and Adlai: The Springfield Years by Patricia Harris, Aurora Publishers [Nashville, Tenn.], 1975
The ads for the book say, "He never made the White House. But he made more history than most Presidents," and for once the ads aren't far wrong. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois—thirty-third governor of Illinois, twice Democratic presidential nominee, ambassador to the United Nations—shaped American politics in ways no mere officeholder could.
Author John Bartlow Martin knew Stevenson and worked for him as a speechwriter. He spent ten years working on this biography, most of it spent sifting through the mountain of speeches, family correspondence, love letters, and memos that comprise the Stevenson archives. The result is a long but always readable account of Stevenson's life from his birth and childhood in Bloomington to his unsuccessful race for the White House against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
Stevenson was the grandson of a Vice-President and the son of an Illinois secretary of state; he himself admitted to having "a bad case of hereditary politics." But he was not to run for elective office until his late forties; the years between Princeton and the Governor's Mansion were spent in the practice of law in Chicago and, later, playing a hand in the establishment of the United Nations as an advisor to the delegation to the San Francisco Conference that organized the body.
Stevenson was elected governor of Illinois in 1948 by the largest plurality ever given a candidate for the office. He had run against the scandal-plagued incumbent, Republican Dwight Green, as a reformer; as he repeatedly told campaign audiences, "I am not a politician; I am a citizen." In office, Stevenson brought a decency and a regard for honesty and performance to a state which had, in the words of Stevenson aide Carl McGowan, "a hell of a low tradition of government."
The governorship brought Stevenson to Springfield for the second time; in 1914 when he was fourteen years old, the family spent a year here after his father was appointed interim secretary of state. The capital has seen too many governors over the years to fall easily for the charms of any of them. But Stevenson, like Otto Kerner in later years, was different. He had many friends in the community itself, people like Donald Funk, president of Sangamo Electric and Dr. Paul Graebel, of the First Presbyterian Church, who gave the oration at Stevenson's Washington funeral in 1965. But, much as he may have enjoyed Springfield's historical feel and the people who lived there, it is unlikely that Stevenson held much affection for the place. It is a judgment at odds with the verdict of some of the Springfieldians who knew Stevenson in those years, but, as Martin points out, Springfield in 1948 was "a town with narrow horizons . . . where the view is parochial, inward-turned." And whatever kind of man Adlai Stevenson was—and his friends and enemies have been arguing about it for years—he was never a man of narrow horizons.
Able, articulate, honest, governor of a major state—it was only a matter of time before Stevenson attracted the attention of national party leaders looking for a man to take Harry Truman's place at the head of the Democratic ticket in 1952. After his nomination in Chicago, Stevenson returned to Springfield (he had rejected advice that he resign as governor to campaign) and set up his personal campaign staff in the capital.
It was an experience neither the candidate nor the city was prepared for. The stampede of reporters, labor leaders, academics, politicians, and party workers into the capital overwhelmed its meager transportation, hotel, and communications facilities. Campaign offices spread out over the city, from a rented house on Fifth Street to the mansion to the three downtown hotels and the Elks Club, until "Springfield came to resemble a disaster area, a haven for refugees from a flood."
Among the refugees during those hectic months was the "Elks Club Group," a covey of researchers and speechwriters holed up in rented rooms on the third floor of the Elks Club. Most of them were young men, working in their first campaign, but their names would later become familiar to millions: J. Edward Day, Arthur Schlesinger, Bernard DeVoto, John Kenneth Galbraith, Willard Wirtz.
If a candidate were measured by the men and women around him, Stevenson would have won handily. But they are not, and he lost by three million votes. Martin leaves his subject in the Governor's Mansion at 2 a.m. on election night, after Stevenson had conceded defeat in a televised address at the Leland Hotel, drinking and talking with his friends, joking with them to help ease their disappointment (when told that he had educated the country with his campaign, Stevenson cracked, "But a lot of people flunked the course"). Facing defeat in a race he himself was sure he would win, he was, as Martin reconstructs the scene, "the most composed man in the room."
Martin has written a long book. Drawing on the enormous Stevenson archives, he has fitted together what John Kenneth Galbraith, in his review of the book in the New York Times, called "by far the best portrait of Stevenson that exists or will be drawn." That portrait is not complete in some respects; Stevenson was, as the author notes in a characteristic understatement, "a complex and sometimes ambiguous man." Still, the "important questions have been answered."
Some of the answers are surprising. To many, Stevenson was somewhat aloof, especially by the glad-handing standards of American politicians, an intellectual who regarded the business of politics with distaste if not outright revulsion, a reserved and cautious man who often fell victim to the common intellectual vice of indecision. Martin offers convincing evidence otherwise. Stevenson was a gregarious sort who craved company, a poor student who read only rarely, a practical politician who was willing to accept (and pay the price for) the support of Jake Arvey's Cook County machine. Some of the misunderstanding was the result of the press and public's habit of seeing in a man what they want to see, but most of it was caused by the man's own role- playing.
Stevenson had "an enormous capacity for dramatizing himself," according to his friend George Bell, That talent lent itself to the building of Stevenson's own favorite image of himself, that of the patrician politician drawn only reluctantly into the public arena. But these revelations, instead of stripping Stevenson of interest, add to it. Like Lincoln, another Illinois politician with whom he felt a keen kinship, Stevenson was somehow more than the sum of his parts. It took a book as good as Martin's to do him justice.
If Martin's biography occasionally tells more about Adlai Stevenson than one needs to know, Patricia Harris' Adlai: The Springfield Years (published last year) sometimes tells not nearly enough. Harris was a reporter for the now-defunct International News Service who covered the Illinois capital when Stevenson was elected governor in 1948. But her account of the governor's years in Springfield, though affectionate and entertaining, is in no sense a biography. As a reporter, she came to know the public Stevenson well, but could not see him close or often enough to know the man's private character. In short, Harris does a good job telling what Stevenson did, but curious readers will have to consult Martin to find out why.
Harris is more valuable writing about the men and women who wrote about the governor. The Springfield press corps of the era—which included John Dreiske of the old Chicago Times, George Tagge of the Trib, and a host of perennially harried wire service reporters—was a hard-working and occasionally eccentric crew whose collective personality overwhelms that of the book's ostensible subject. Harris was closer to this group than she ever got to Stevenson, and her recollections of them have the authority that her sketches of Stevenson lack. A fairer title, in fact, would have been, "Covering Adlai: The Springfield Years." ●