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 here, if you don’t believe it), and JFK was a more avid reader and a superior thinker. Could it be that Stevenson’s loserdom is what earned him his halo?
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”).
But to those who felt estranged from the Book of the Month Club mentality of 1950s America, Stevenson’s eccentricities enhanced his allure as an authentic who wouldn’t tailor his image just to get elected. In a display of his sometimes terrible judgment, Stevenson once said he wouldn’t run TV campaign spots because Americans didn’t want their candidates sold like detergent. Admirers knew he was overestimating the public but loved him for it; they wanted their hero to cling to a naively sunny view of the public. The Stevenson Paradox took hold: The very fact that he was the kind of person Eisenhower’s America would never elect was precisely what made him so attractive.
Stevenson valiantly carried the Democrats’ standard for four years and expected his service would bring him the nomination in 1956. But that year he sat out the New Hampshire primary, allowing Tennessee Sen. Ester Kefauver to win big. Then the next week, in Minnesota, where Stevenson had support from party regulars, Kefauver upset him. Finally, out of necessity, Stevenson deigned to enter the mud pit. He campaigned hard through June, donning silly hats, playing musical instruments, assailing Kefauver—all the things he considered beneath him—and after the California primary, secured the nomination.
When Stevenson lost by even a greater margin to Ike in 1956, the Stevenson Paradox again kicked in. His thrashing made him seem more noble and virtuous. Eleanor Roosevelt, the liberal New York Post, and scads of left-of-center idealists named him as the 1960 presidential favorite. Surely he would beat the odious Nixon!
But first he would have to stop Jack Kennedy’s juggernaut of organization, family money, and dynamism (Alsop called JFK “Stevenson with balls”). But that would have required a zeal Stevenson lacked. Adlai’s diffidence allowed both the Schlesinger/Galbraith bow-tie crowd and, more important, Richard Daley and other party bosses to defect. Still, at the July convention, Stevenson had a glimmer of a chance to steal the nomination when mobs of his supporters packed the galleries and delivered a deafening ovation. In those days, delegates had more freedom to vote their own minds, and a stampede could turn a nomination. But Stevenson, true to form, haughtily declined to seize the moment, preferring to maintain his martyr status and lose. It was JFK on the first ballot.
Even after Kennedy’s election, Stevenson remained a heroic loser. For defying Kennedy, however half-heartedly, he was denied the secretary of state post he craved, shunted instead over to the United Nations, out of the Camelot loop. During the Bay of Pigs crisis, JFK kept him in the dark about the planned invasion and allowed him to proclaim self-righteously before the United Nations that such allegations were “categorically … without foundation.” The truth humiliated him, though his reputation didn’t suffer. Everyone at the United Nations figured he’d been misled, since surely Adlai Stevenson would never lie so baldly.
Stevenson died of a heart attack on July 14, 1965. Since then he has been immortalized as the conscience of liberalism at a time when liberalism was in retreat—an outspoken critic of McCarthy and of his era’s gray-flannel conformity. For that he deserves lasting admiration.
But mostly we remember Stevenson for his role as American politics’ last—perhaps only—beautiful loser. “Better we lose the election than mislead the people, and better we lose than misgovern the people,” he once said, and unlike other politicians who mouthed such sentiments, he believed it. Winning would have proved him a politician no better than the rest.
Liberals and intellectuals of the 1950s, even as they decried the deadness of the culture, also took pride in their alienation from it. Indeed, they felt superior because of it. Like being blacklisted, abstaining from the Tupperware parties and Levittowns became a badge of honor. Just so, Adlai Stevenson’s inability to prevail in the tawdry arena of electioneering became a flickering testament to the conviction that politics and decency don’t mix—which, true or not, provides a comforting refuge every time a Mondale, a Dukakis, or a Bradley goes down in defeat.