He blew his mind out in a car,
he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.
A crowd of people stood and stared;
they’d seen his face before,
nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords.
— Lennon & McCartney, “A Day in the Life,” 1967
I honestly have tried to avoid the presidential race this year both here in History Central and in my larger life (it might surprise you and my long-suffering spouse to know I have one), but I’m sure you can guess how well that’s gone.
It is difficult to process the idea that it was only 16 years ago that three Princetonians – all still hale and hearty today – ran for the presidential nominations of their respective parties. Whatever you might think individually about Bill Bradley ’65, Steve Forbes ’70, or Ralph Nader ’55, even on a really bad day any of them would add significant uplift to what’s happening now.
And if that doesn’t get you suitably agitated, we can always go back and revisit – and perhaps we really should – that profoundly unique politician, Adlai Stevenson II ’22. It is just 60 years since his last quixotic campaign, run in a time of social conformity and spiritual disquiet that may seem a far country from ours, but the passage of time may allow us to be more dispassionate and insightful as we try to evaluate and actually learn something from our very own train wreck.
You may well think of the ’50s as Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show on steroids, but below the surface it was actually driven by the Korean “Police Action,” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Josef Stalin and his aftermath, tailgunner Joe McCarthy (with Richard Nixon as an added bonus) and his paranoiacs, the brutal repression of Hungary, Sputnik, war in the Suez, Brown vs. Board of Education, the birth of television advertising as culture, and as a lovely parting gift, Fidel Castro. And so, inevitably, it was the decade of Elvis, Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Jack Kerouac. While Dwight Eisenhower, the by-the-book hero of the ’40s, was the face of the country (and golfers everywhere) in the ’50s, the true measurement of the era can be seen starkly in the transition from the 1948 presidential newspaper/radio campaign – complete with an explicitly racist third-party candidate who won four states – to the Life magazine campaign of Jack and Jackie Kennedy breathlessly covered by three television news networks in 1960, complete with televised debates and Nixon’s sweaty upper lip.
Hovering over it all, and responsible for much of it, was the new, improved H-bomb.
With Korea infesting the national consciousness in 1952, both parties had seen the persona of World War II hero Eisenhower – clearly not very dogmatic – as a sure winner, and indeed he was. Under the complex rubric of “I Like Ike,” it was as close to Father Knows Best as an election could get. (And, no that’s not an anachronism; while the TV series started in 1954, it was a radio hit beginning in 1949.) His main campaign ad literally was a Disney cartoon with music by Irving Berlin. Stevenson gave a series of speeches on complex international problems – in return for which vice presidential candidate Nixon labeled him an “egghead” – and criticized the virulent McCarthy; Eisenhower vowed to go to Korea and shook McCarthy’s hand. It was a landslide.
Stevenson saw enough in the next four years to convince him he should run again. Eisenhower’s major heart attack in 1955 almost gave Stevenson an opening, but the president recovered well, and in yet another media twist, his new televised ability to campaign from the White House instead of barnstorming across the country, combined with his personal popularity, allowed him to run. Stevenson had a difficult primary season, but emerged with the nomination. In terms of effective campaign styles, perhaps he should have dwelt on the fact that Elvis Presley got 5,000 write-in votes against him. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, he clearly saw the explosive train headed his way (and, in the end, at us today):
This idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal — that you can gather votes like box tops — is, I think, the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.
Still, almost unable to help himself, he persisted in discussing issues instead of slogans. Needing to stir up something major to compete with the iconic Eisenhower, Stevenson laid out detailed positions on eliminating the draft and transitioning to an all-volunteer military (imagine how that might have affected Vietnam 10 years later), on dramatically increased government spending on social programs (something of a foretaste of the Great Society), and on détente with the now Stalin-less Soviet Union to allow reduction of military spending as well as a cessation of nuclear tests, which posed unknown radiation threats to the entire planet, and on which Eisenhower was silent. Our good friends at the University Archives have made available via Reel Mudd a fascinating campaign film on the testing, a particular concern of the nominee’s:
In contrast, the incumbent president was photographed on the tee at Maryland’s Burning Tree Club, and ran on a slogan of … “I Still Like Ike.” In the month before the election, world events cooperated with Eisenhower as the UK, France, and Israel invaded Egypt, which he sternly convinced them to roll back while being presidential; and the Soviets invaded and crushed the Hungarian uprising, raising the specter of the Communist menace and rejustifying a big military presence in Europe, not to mention a very military commander-in-chief. In the end it was a contest pitting the charisma of MIT particle physicist Louis Osborne against Don Draper of Sterling Cooper; Stevenson lost by 9 million votes, or 15 percent.
In the world of politics, the photogenic Kennedy bested the sweaty Nixon in 1960, Hollywood staple Ronald Reagan won in 1980 and 1984, and today we have, well, whatever the Twitterverse can fit into 140 characters.
In the world of substance, Eisenhower, along with the USSR and Great Britain, called a voluntary moratorium to nuclear atmospheric testing in 1958, two years after Stevenson campaigned on the issue. In 1963, after the trauma of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the three countries signed the first Limited Test Ban Treaty. Stevenson was by then the widely admired ambassador to the United Nations, fortunately not an elected position.
But of course, if you look up “egghead” on Wikipedia, a picture of Adlai Stevenson heads the article.