Adlai E. Stevenson memorialized, but accomplishments not always remembered
Joe Bean, of Libertyville, is visiting the Adlai Stevenson Historic Home, while preparing for a presentation about the life of Adlai Stevenson. | Joe Shuman~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 7, 2013 7:52AM
LINCOLNSHIRE — So much has been named after him, but so little has been learned from him. Fitting, in a way, for a man who achieved so much with so little time in the public eye.
Tuesday was the annual observance of Adlai E. Stevenson Day in Illinois, the little-known holiday celebrating the little-known background of the man after whom one of the state’s largest high schools and one of the region’s busiest interstates are named. Historian Joe Bean offered an exhibition Tuesday night — at Stevenson High School — about the man from Libertyville who became his nation’s ambassador to the world, but died less than two decades after running his first campaign.
“The purpose of the presentation is to acquaint, in most cases, I think, the public with the man, his office and the impact he had on us,” Bean said. “How did this man, elected as an unknown, become a world figure in five years?”
Bean answered that question in his exhibit: Stevenson’s speeches, particularly his use of humor.
“There was a tremendous power in his words, written or spoken,” Bean said.
Adlai E. Stevenson the Second was born into a powerful family: his grandfather, Adlai the First, served as Vice President of the United States under Grover Cleveland. Adlai II held only one public office in his life — Governor of Illinois from 1948-1952 — but his humor and honesty in the face of insurmountable opposition won him respect in both major parties.
When Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower became the Republican presidential candidate in 1952, Stevenson was already running for a second gubernatorial term…but a weak Democratic party, finding no other contenders, drafted Stevenson to challenge the hero of World War II. Bean said that Stevenson, knowing he faced impossibly long odds, used uncommon campaign tactics.
“’I tried to get off your ballot, and I can’t,’” Bean quoted Stevenson saying during a campaign speech in Oregon. “’Please don’t vote for me.’”
They obeyed: In 1952, Eisenhower crushed Stevenson, who even failed to carry Illinois.
The outcome was the same in 1956: Stevenson ended up much like a bug does when hit by a car flying down the interstate system Eisenhower was in the middle of building.
After two national failures, Stevenson should have been mocked as a loser; Bean said that what followed was instead five years of mounting respect for a man who was clearly a leader, miscast as the opponent of a living legend. Stevenson remained politically influential, recommending policies that became part of Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy and Johnson agendas, publishing a book of his speeches and even being sent on a 30-nation world tour by Look Magazine, during which the private citizen met with the Emperor of Japan, the Queen of England and other heads of state.
The respect he built around the world took him to its nexus in 1961, when he became America’s ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson held that position until he dropped dead of a heart attack on a street in London in 1965.
The news about “the Gov,” as he liked to be called, got back to Lake County as a new school district was forming a few miles south of his residence. The original School Board of District 125 — mostly a Republican area at that time — was planning on dubbing their creation Tamarack High School, denoting a species of tree common to this area.
“When Stevenson died in July 1965, they reversed course and decided to name it in his honor,” said Jim Conrey, spokesman for what became Stevenson High School.
But the decades since then have stripped some of the veneer off of Stevenson’s legacy: fellow Illinois politician Abraham Lincoln was possibly the nation’s finest President, while Chicagoan Barack Obama is its first African-American executive. Stevenson produced some effective policy and some sparkling quips (when his house burned down, he lit a cigarette from one of its embers and said “See, we’re still using the place”)…but the fact that Bean had to inform his audience of those quips evidenced how far from the public consciousness the Gov has fallen.
Bean said he keyed on Stevenson’s speechmaking, particularly his humor, as the vantage point from which to remind the current residents of his old neighborhood of the influence he wielded so well — though for such a short duration.
“This is a cliche, but it’s true: He was a man before his time,” Bean said. “So much of what he advocated in the ‘50s became the foundation of Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society. His role in the Cuban Missile Crisis is finally coming to light.
“It’s sad, I think, because he was so influential on how we live today,” Bean added. “We don’t honor the man as we should.”