Adlai Stevenson, the last real progressive candidate

In baseball, it’s often said that you have to be a good pitcher to be a twenty game loser. The reason is simple; if you weren’t good, the manager wouldn’t send you out to the mound twenty times with the expectation that you’d give your team a chance of winning.

Who is the last presidential candidate of either major political party who was good enough to lose two consecutive elections? The answer is Democrat Adlai Stevenson, Jr. of Illinois. He lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.

To get a sense of how progressive he was, we can examine his explanation of his religious views:

He classified himself as a Unitarian and said. “I think that one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating of human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way: not in making the whole world Unitarian [Universalist], but in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of critical self-examination.”

This is clearly one of the main tenets of the progressive movement. He was open-minded and looked to bridge differences rather than fight over them.

Stevenson served as governor of Illinois from 1949-1953. He worked to protect civil liberties, but gained special recognition for cracking down on illegal gambling, improving state highways, and reorganizing the state police. He was remarkably popular, despite being described by many as an “egghead intellectual.” He charmed people with his self-deprecating humor.  In one speech, he joked, “eggheads of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your yolks!”

When President Harry Truman decided in early 1952 to run for a second full term, he met with Governor Stevenson and, following the meeting, Truman decided to support Stevenson for president. Others had initiated a “draft Stevenson” movement. Stevenson sealed the deal at the Chicago convention, where as host governor, he gave a welcoming speech that roused the delegates, because it was so energetic and thoughtful.

Stevenson-Adlai-shoe-aStevenson lost to Eisenhower that year, and it was not a surprise to many. Had the Democrats had their choice, Eisenhower would have been their nominee. However, after much thought and consideration, Ike decided in 1951 to run as a Republican. Stevenson was a good second choice for the Democrats, but not good enough to win. A little insight into Stevenson’s campaign can be gained by viewing a photograph that revealed a hole in the sole of his right shoe. This became a well-known symbol of Adlai’s frugality and earthiness. Photographer William M. Gallagher of the Flint Journal won the 1953 Pulitzer prize on the strength of the image.

1956 was essentially an “instant replay,” as the popular Eisenhower chose to run for a second term, and Stevenson was a satisfactory candidate for the Democrats. The party was rather splintered, particularly between the northern and southern factions. Stevenson campaigned well, but garnered only 42 percent of the popular vote, and 73 electoral votes from a mere seven states.

Stevenson still had the presidential bug in 1960 and sought the nomination. However, the top two contenders were John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Stevenson never really had a chance, as Kennedy garnered the nomination through excellent showings in the several primaries that existed at that time, as well as clever back room politicking at the convention. Kennedy then defeated Richard Nixon in the general election. The President then appointed Stevenson U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, where his oratory, laced with irony, shined, particularly in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Adlai Stevenson lives deep in the memory bank of many Americans. The oldest amongst us are fortunate enough to remember Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Others go as far back as “Give ’em hell” Harry Truman, who among other things, integrated the U.S. armed services. The baby boomers remember Kennedy and Johnson. Lost in the shuffle is Stevenson, who truly was a positive force in the progressive movement, a “happy warrior” like FDR and Hubert Humphrey; not a “grumbler like Ralph Nader. In the 2012 election, Barack Obama, who like Stevenson is from Illinois, chose to wear the progressive mantle more than he did in 2008, and he exhibited much of the joie de vivre of Stevenson. It was a good time to be a progressive in the 1950s, even if we lost, because Stevenson gave us a lift. It’s certainly a good time to be a progressive now.