With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Is Barack Obama Another Adlai Stevenson?

Americans know where Hillary Clinton fits into the tradition of Democratic politics. We have no farther back to go than the 1990’s and her husband’s two terms. But Barack Obama has arrived on the national scene as a political orphan. Perhaps this is why columnists, pundits and talking heads like to provide the Illinois senator with a Democratic ancestor. Sometimes it is John F. Kennedy, occasionally it is Eugene McCarthy, but most often it is Adlai Stevenson. In that appealing self-deprecatory style of his, no doubt Stevenson would be pleased that anyone remembered him a half century after his two failed presidential campaigns. On one level, his legacy to Barack Obama is the unacceptable one of a noble loser.

There are superficial similarities between these two upstarts from Illinois. Both deliver visionary, sometimes windy speeches; both are witty and appeal to a group of educated liberals whom Stevenson cultivated. (Stevenson called them “his Shakespeare vote,” complaining after his loss to Eisenhower in 1952 that they had failed the final exam.) Both Stevenson and Obama ascended rapidly into the highest party circles with slight resumes, the beneficiaries of fortuitous events.

In Stevenson’s case, though he disdained the bosses, he was in fact dependent on a choice made by Jake Arvey, Chicago’s post-war Democratic leader, who decided that the unsullied Stevenson should run in 1948 for the high-profile governorship of Illinois, and not the U.S. Senate seat that Stevenson craved. In fact Stevenson had a hard time making up his mind whether to run at all. Obama has exhibited no such indecision. More like that of another famous Illinois politician -- Abraham Lincoln -- his trajectory from the state legislature has had its share of contingent circumstances, but he has hardly resisted.

Stevenson’s famous call at the 1952 Democratic convention “Let’s Talk Sense to the American People” became his mantra for never pandering to the electorate, an ideal he took so seriously that he ended up telling voters precisely what they did not want to hear. Obama might have remembered it as he listlessly responded to the gotcha trivia asked in the recent ABC-sponsored debate.

As was the case with Stevenson, Obama’s highly calibrated public style has led to charges of elitism and an inability to attract the blue-collar vote--another surface similarity with the professorial Adlai Stevenson, whose speeches were full of references to the Bible and Greek mythology. Still it’s hard to make this comparison work: Stevenson’s elitism was not just social, but rested on an inherited family legacy as the grandson of an admired Illinois congressman and vice-president with the same name. “I have a bad case of inherited politics,” he confessed, as he became a wealthy patrician who rode to the hounds in Lake Forest on Saturday afternoons.

Meanwhile Obama represents the self-made educated elite of a new century. His credentials rest with his ability to transcend racial barriers, his Ivy League diplomas, his community activism and his high intelligence. (Stevenson also was Ivy League educated, though he flunked out of Harvard Law School where Obama was on the law review.)

Most critically in this comparison, both men promote change. But even controlled for time, the transformations intended by the two men are decidedly different. In 1956, his second campaign as the Democratic presidential nominee, Stevenson entitled his platform “the New America.” This was something of an exaggeration for his program included familiar Democratic staples such as the revision of the Taft-Hartley Act, higher agricultural subsidies, and a variant of the Medicare program first proposed by Harry Truman. While Stevenson spoke compellingly to the poor and neglected, his policies were glosses on basic New Deal initiatives. In 1956 Stevenson did offer two new programs--an end to H-Bomb testing in the atmosphere and an end to the draft. Both came too late to have any significant impact and probably lost him votes. What was new in Stevenson’s campaigns was his intention to reform campaigns by not promising the undeliverable. “I don’t have to win the election,” he informed Alan Shivers, the Texas governor who wanted a Stevenson pledge to support state ownership of off-shore oil.

Obama’s call for change seems more transcendent and is less based on the practice of politics than the ambitious creation of a new coalition for the future. On the issue of race, on which Stevenson was a conservative even for his times, Obama would bring blacks and whites together with his call for better jobs and health care and a less partisan America. He speaks intimately to those whom he would persuade to join his campaign for a new America, while in a stylistic difference Stevenson was uncomfortable with spontaneous speeches.

Stevenson and Obama approach politics in different ways, even when we take into account the fifty years separating these campaigns. Stevenson was ambivalent about the entire practice of getting elected. He despised the primary system, which was emerging in the 1950’s, preferring the brokered conventions of the past. In 1956 he entered only four primaries, while his Democratic challenger Estes Kefauver ran with gusto in all nineteen. Throughout the primary season Stevenson complained that such contests took away from the time he could spend on his eloquent messages to the people. “What do they think I am a candidate for— deputy sheriff?” he once asked.

Obama displays none of Stevenson’s tentativeness and disdain for politics. He is equally at home before all kinds of audiences, though he is palpably displeased with media trivia. His campaign is adept at the new technology of politics as Stevenson never was with the new medium of his time--television.

Still Stevenson’s campaigns should be remembered for two things—one a cautionary tale and the other a solution. First Stevenson ran a clean campaign against Eisenhower, only once mentioning the latter’s bad health. But Republican operatives “swift-boated” the Illinois Democrat, spreading rumors to which Stevenson never replied, claiming the Democrat was a homosexual and a friend of Alger Hiss. On a more positive note, Stevenson offers Democrats a solution to their wistful hopes for a dream team of Clinton and Obama. After his nomination in 1956, Stevenson insisted that he would not pick his running mate, but that convention delegates must vote for his vice-president. And so they did, choosing Estes Kefauver. Perhaps it was not a dream team, but for 2008, it is a precedent.