Adlai Stevenson, Even Today, Is Not Boring

Like Obama, the former presidential candidate was admired for his eloquence -- and went from obscurity to celebrity after he gave a speech to the Democratic convention.

Library of Congress

Bruce Handy, deputy editor of Vanity Fair, earned prime space in the New York Times Book Review recently for a piece headlined "My Fabulous Boring Book Collection." "What I am after," Handy wrote, "are books that are uniquely, exquisitely, profoundly boring -- books whose boringness intrigues, if that is not a contradiction in terms." The lead selection on this list of dubious distinction was Stevenson: Speeches, by Adlai Stevenson, with a foreword by John Steinbeck (1952): a collection of oratory by that year's Democratic candidate for president against Dwight Eisenhower. Seeing it for sale on a sidewalk table on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Handy thought, "I couldn't imagine a book that anyone in 2010 would possibly want to read less.... I had to own it. And thus began a passion."

Well, I can't really dispute the commercial limitations of Stevenson's speeches, but as it happens, I own a copy of the book, retrieved from my late father's shelves. It was published by Random House and sold for $1 a copy, and after 60 years, it intrigued me, as it did Handy, but for a less disparaging reason. Reading Stevenson today and reflecting on that campaign in the midst of this bitter, money-drenched presidential contest currently in progress is fascinating, in its way.

Like Barack Obama, Stevenson was admired for his eloquence. And like the current president, he came out of Illinois politics and went from relative national obscurity to celebrity and a leading role among Democrats based on a speech he gave to the convention as the state's first-term governor. For Obama, it was his keynote address to the 2004 convention in Boston. Stevenson's transformational moment was his welcoming remarks to Democrats attending the party's Chicago convention, which began without a clear favorite for the nomination. Within days, he was the candidate (drafted for the position that he had said he did not seek), and his acceptance speech solidified his standing as a political figure of unusual humility combined with depth of insight. (There seems no doubt among historians that he wrote every word.) Here is a bit of its opening rhetoric:

I accept your nomination -- and your program. I should have preferred to hear those words uttered by a stronger, a wiser, a better man than myself. . . . I would not seek your nomination for the Presidency because the burdens of that office stagger the imagination. Its potential for good or evil now and in the years of our lives smothers exultation and converts vanity to prayer . . . that my heart has been troubled, that I have not sought this nomination, that I could not seek it in good conscience, that I would not seek it in honest self-appraisal, it is not to say that I value it the less. Rather it is that I revere the office of the Presidency of the United States. And now that you have made your decision I will fight to win that office with all my heart and soul. And with your help, I have no doubt that we will win.

Steinbeck's foreword acknowledges that he had barely heard of Stevenson in the run-up to the nomination, but was entranced by his speeches. "They are unique in my experience," he wrote. "The listeners set up no hullabaloo. The speaker is never cancelled out by emotional roars of inattentive applause. People seem to resent applause because in the noise they might miss something.... I've watched them leaning forward, their eyes never leaving the speaker's face and turning irritably toward any distraction. They're listening all right, listening as an audience does to fine theater or fine music or fine thinking."

By today's standards, Stevenson was a very unlikely candidate. The columnists Stewart and Joseph Alsop deployed the term "egghead" to characterize him, because of his bald, oval head and his professorial mannerisms. The appellation stuck. Stevenson invariably referred to Eisenhower in the most respectful ways -- as "a great general who has served the Army and the nation well" or as "my very distinguished opponent" -- and on policies, differences were drawn in a spirit that would seem bizarre in their equanimity in contemporary debate. Discussing "The Atomic Future," Stevenson concluded, "To my Republican listeners I would say: the atomic adventure transcends partisan issues. Win or lose, we Democrats will work with you to follow this adventure to the end of peace and plenty for mankind."

In hindsight, Stevenson's chances for beating Eisenhower, a national hero, were always a very long shot, and he was thoroughly drubbed in 1952 and again in 1956. We live in another era, in which the principal purpose of politics seems to be spending vast fortunes discrediting your opponent; not just his record, but his character. Yes, Stevenson's grandiloquent speeches are an artifact, but I am grateful to Bruce Handy for choosing them, even if his intention was mocking. The fact that Adlai Stevenson was a serious contender for president whose manner of address to the electorate was so respectful of them is impressive. Barack Obama, whose personal background could hardly be more different, shares qualities of eloquence and dignity with his Illinois political predecessor (with a better track record at the polls). Steinbeck's appraisal of Stevenson's writing also applies to Obama at his best: "I love the clear, clean writing.... As a man, I like his intelligent, humorous, logical, civilized mind." As far as I am concerned, those are assets that hold up well after 60 years for Stevenson, and may well benefit Obama this November.