Adlai’s still talking sense
When the wheels come off in Washington, and Illinois enters another cycle of bad government, I turn to the Adlai Stevensons for hope about politics. The Adlai I have had the privilege to cover is number three, not the more famous Illinois governor and two-time presidential candidate, or his namesake who was Grover Cleveland’s vice president. The Stevenson I know, less dynamic than his father, is the one who, as Mike Royko wrote, “has all the oratorical fire of an algebra teacher.”
Yet Adlai III has always been the keeper of the flame, a master of wordcraft, a believer in democracy even after it produces a Nixon and a Trump. He taught me that history is not a thing of the past but a handbook for the future. “Our politics is challenged, but challenge is opportunity,” he said in a Springfield speech two years ago.
I followed him through his decade in the U.S. Senate, from 1970 to 1980, and his two campaigns for governor – losing by a few votes in 1982 and by a ballot malfunction in 1986. I interviewed him in Washington, followed him on the campaign trail in Illinois, studied his written speeches. Now he is a lion in winter. At 87, he says he and Nancy are “winding down.” Living in Chicago, he oversees his farm near Galena, but no longer makes speeches or does much business with China, which had occupied much of his post-Senate time.
The chaos in the Trump White House is “more serious than anything I ever anticipated,” Stevenson told me last week. “Trump is unprecedented. He’s not qualified temperamentally or by experience” to be president. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t survive one term.” True to form, Stevenson sees this not so much as Trump’s failure but failure of political institutions. Trump is a “symptom of our dysfunction.” He attracted news coverage because he was so “demented,” and was “nominated by television,” rather than a political party. “After being rejected by the people he was elected by the Electoral College.”
The Stevenson solution is more and better politics, not less politics but less money. Seventy years ago he was a 17-year-old sergeant at arms at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia when Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis and candidate for the Senate, challenged the politicians in the smoke-filled room to do their duty by adopting a strong civil rights plank. They did, driving much of the South out of the party and seeming to damage their chances of keeping the White House by doing the right thing.
Back home in Illinois that year, the teenager was the driver for his father’s campaign for governor. Stevenson writes: “We campaigned at factory gates and county squares, ward meetings at night, pressing the flesh, condemning the corrupt Green administration in Springfield, the do-nothing Congress in Washington, exhorting the faithful to get everyone registered and out to vote the straight Democratic ticket.” The straight Democratic ticket helped Stevenson win by a wide margin, helping to carry Truman back to the White House. The Stevenson campaign for governor cost $157,000.
“The purpose of democracy is not to win power,” Adlai III writes. “It is to inform the people so they can make sound decisions. Trust the people with the truth, all the truth. What wins is more important than who wins.”
These words, used by both Adlai II and Adlai III, sound naive in this cynical time, and would the more if Stevenson were not using his fleeting years in the relentless pursuit of practical, ground-level democracy. He says our politics has lost its balance, but that can be restored if Americans have an agenda for renewal and reform. To that end he has organized the Stevenson Center on Democracy (stevensoncenterondemocracy.org). Housed in rented space at his father’s one-time home in Libertyville, now owned by the Lake County Forest Preserve District, the Stevenson Center hosts monthly programs on government reform. The Feb. 25 program, “The role of government in a functioning democracy,” features Cook County Clerk David Orr, who championed Illinois’ motor voter law. The Stevenson Center is also working with other groups to form a nationwide coalition for political reform on topics like campaign finance, redistricting and presidential primaries. Stevenson says that Trump, ironically, has energized the reform movement in the U.S.
Another recent concern of Stevenson’s has been to see displayed the family papers and items of political history he donated to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield several years ago. The collection, he says, includes a “huge trove” of memorabilia, cartoons, photos and campaign items, including some from Adlai Stevenson’s 1892 campaign for vice president. There is also a collection of material from Adlai III’s great great grandfather, Jesse Fell of Bloomington, who helped to persuade Abraham Lincoln to run for president, and who got Lincoln to write an autobiographical sketch for the campaign. “There is not much of it,” Lincoln wrote to Fell about his life story, “for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.” The ALPLM hasn’t decided what to do with the material. “We are exploring ways to create a long-term exhibit of Stevenson material (and other Illinois political material),” ALPLM spokesman Chris Wills wrote in an email to Illinois Times. “No decisions have been made yet.”
Let’s hope the good people at the museum will make decisions soon. There is some urgency, and not just because Adlai III isn’t getting any younger. Illinoisans are no longer proud of their politics and, like many Americans, are on the verge of cynicism about self government. They need to be reminded quickly that Lincoln was not the last statesman from here, that also from the prairie emerged a family that modeled honesty, humility and humor in joyful public service. The time seems ripe for history that shows hope in politics and faith in democracy.
“Let’s talk sense to the American people,” deserves to be remembered and revived. “Let’s tell them that there are no gains without pains,” Adlai II told the 1952 Chicago convention that nominated him for president. “That we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions … but a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the enemies of man – war, poverty and tyranny. …”
Fletcher Farrar is editor and CEO of Illinois Times.