For my blog post today about Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, I will highlight what Conrad Black says on pages 211-212 about Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for President in 1952. Black mentions Stevenson’s background as part of a wealthy family and chronicles Stevenson’s career in public service. Black states that, as Governor of Illinois, Stevenson “had run an effective, reforming administration.” But Black goes on to critique Stevenson’s acceptance speech before the 1952 Democratic National Convention:
“In his acceptance speech, he had asked that this ‘cup pass from me,’ and had expressed admiration for Eisenhower, but said that he had been called upon to heal a terminal case ‘of political schizophrenia.’ It was eloquent, as Stevenson always was, but it was not the right note. It was too pious about the nomination, too deferential to his opponent, and not believable in claiming that the man who had received the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in the West could not control the Republican Party.”
I have two items:
1. The part about Stevenson as Governor running an “effective, reforming administration” stood out to me because I wondered what that meant. Did it mean that Stevenson cracked down on corruption? And, if so, was he able to distance himself somewhat from the notorious corruption of the Democratic Truman Administration? I’d say that, on some level, it did mean that Stevenson made government less corrupt. According to this wikipedia article, which draws from Porter McKeever’s 1989 book Adlai Stevenson: His Life and Legacy, “Principal among Stevenson’s achievements as Illinois governor were reorganizing the state police by removing political considerations from hiring practices and instituting a merit system for employment and promotion, cracking down on illegal gambling, and improving the state highways.”
But my impression is that Stevenson could not distance himself from the corruption of the Truman Administration. For one, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon was harping on that corruption. Second, rather than trying to distance himself from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman record, Stevenson was seeking to hitch himself to it, since FDR had a reputation for getting the U.S. out of the Great Depression and winning World War II (and Truman as President played a role in the latter). And, third, while Democrats and others were criticizing Nixon for having a fund from the donations of businessmen, Stevenson himself had his own fund. While Nixon’s fund was for political purposes, however, Stevenson used some of his fund for personal purposes (according to Black). Stevenson’s fund was legal, but it probably didn’t look too good, when the Democrats were criticizing Nixon’s fund. (Nixon was upset, however, that Stevenson’s fund was not criticized as much as his own fund.)
2. Black says that a downside of Stevenson’s speech was that it was “too deferential to” Eisenhower, the Republican nominee for President in 1952. There are plenty of political strategists who maintain that going negative is an effective political strategy. Democrats James Carville and Paul Begala argue this in their book, Take It Back, as they critique John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential campaign. I’m all for candidates setting up a clear contrast between themselves and their opponent, and yet I actually like it when candidates find something to praise about their opponent. I think of Al Gore in the 1996 Vice-Presidential debate praising Republican VP candidate Jack Kemp’s record on affirmative action, civility, and race, or Republican Presidential candidate Arnold Vinick on the West Wing praising the grace, dignity, and leadership of the President he hoped to replace, Democrat Josiah Bartlet (see here). There may have been sincerity in what the men were saying, but there was also a likely political motive. Al Gore probably wanted to highlight that Jack Kemp flip-flopped on affirmative action when Kemp joined Bob Dole’s ticket, and Vinick (according to Bartlet) was seeking to gain Democratic votes, while (according to Toby Ziegler) Vinick was exalting himself as Bartlet’s natural successor, as the Democrats running for the nomination came across as little kids trying to get a place at the adult table. Granted, there aren’t many things in politics that are done out of a pure motive. Still, I for one tend to respect candidates when they find something to praise about the other side. To me, that comes across as mature.