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Book Reviews

Unlocking Stevenson's personal life


Porter McKeever. Adlai Stevenson: His Life and Legacy. New York: William Morrow, 1989. Pp. 519 with index, photographs and bibliography. $25 (cloth).

Many Americans yearn for inspirational leaders who can use the English language not for snatches of seductive "adtalk" but to awaken our national sense of common purpose. Among those of a certain age and ideology, this accounts for much of the nostalgia aroused by the memory of an Illinois politician who won only one election in his life. Twice the losing presidential nominee of the Democratic party, after serving a single term as governor of the state, Adiai Stevenson II is remembered most for the eloquence of his written and spoken words.

Porter McKeever, who was publicity director of Volunteers for Stevenson in the 1952 presidential campaign, has added to an already abundant library of Stevenson biographies. The author provides little material not excavated previously for the masterful books written by John Bartlow Martin and Kenneth S. Davis. As a member of Ambassador Stevenson's staff at the United Nations, McKeever might have been expected to cover that last stage of his subject's life in greater depth and with more inside information than he does.

Where this biography does excel, surprisingly, is in the story of Stevenson's troubled personal life. His mother was manic depressive. At the age of 12 he accidentally shot and killed a young friend. He married a woman whose mental health deteriorated at the peak of his political career and who was intent upon ruining him as a public figure. These themes are tied together in a way that helps us understand the hesitant public personality and the lack of psychological toughness that separated Stevenson from the Kennedys and other macho contemporaries.

Students of Illinois political history have always been particularly intrigued by how Stevenson was chosen to run for governor and by how he made such a sudden splash that he became the object of one of the few seemingly authentic presidential nomination drafts. Jacob Arvey was reigning as party boss in Chicago during the interregnum between the Edward J. Kelly and Richard J. Daley machines. Stevenson was a Gold Coast blueblood, witty and highly cultured, but not an especially notable (or charismatic) media celebrity. He had been a government lawyer in Washington, D.C., and was involved in the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations and various other do-good activities. He had tried to form a syndicate to buy the Chicago Daily News and, at age 47, wrote in his diary: "Still restless, dissatisfied with myself. What's the matter?" The following year Arvey engineered his endorsement for governor by the party's slate-making committee. The chances for victory didn't look very promising anyhow, and many of the kingmakers were busy maneuvering for a piece of the new leadership.

Coverage of Stevenson's gubernatorial term is not one of the book's strong points. Because he had a reporter's familiarity with Illinois politics, John Bartlow Martin's Adlai Stevenson of Illinois is far more knowledgeable on the Springfield years. McKeever, for example, makes Col. Arvey out to be much more of a reformer and much less of a "smell-the-meat-a-cookin' " politician than he was. Perhaps the most absurd example of McKeever's ignorance of Illinois politics is his inclusion of Dan Rostenkowski, the son and grandson of Chicago Democratic ward committeemen, in a list of idealistic young people said to have been drawn into politics by Stevenson's attractive "new look."

The defects of this biography are a reminder of the need for a book that will soon be too late. Before the Chicago Democratic machine is left to rust away in some junkyard, some author more knowledgeable than McKeever should examine in depth the fascinating interplay in the Democratic party during those glory days between the money-grubbing pols and the reformers like Stevenson, Paul Douglas, Henry Horner et al. who were brought out, initially, to be mannequins in the window.

For all its shortcomings, McKeever's book is graced with much rich detail. Carl McGowan, who was closer to Stevenson for longer than any other political associate, appears to have taken more time to enlighten McKeever near the end of his own life than lie did with any of the earlier biographers.

We read an account of Stevenson calling House Speaker Paul Powell to thank him for his help in passing a bill that had been opposed by the truck lobby and of the inimitable southern Illinoisan replying: "I'm mighty glad to have your thanks, Governor, because it cost me $50,000."

When Stevenson was governor, there were no television sets in the Executive Mansion in Springfield. If he wanted to watch a football or baseball game, Stevenson would go over to the house of his press aide. Bill Flanagan, who owned a TV. According to McKeever, Stevenson had never seen NBC's Meet the Press on television when he was invited to appear on the program as a presidential candidate.

Among the book's most poignant scenes for those who were there (and bizarre for those who were not) was the gathering of the '52 campaign braintrust men like Bernard De Voto, Sidney Hyman, David Bell, John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. all crammed together in their primitive work quarters on the third floor of the decrepit old Elks Club on Sixth Street in Springfield. In today's campaign world of computer banks, high-tech communication consultants and Madison Avenue sound-bite manipulators, it is not a scene we are likely to see repeated even if there is a Stevensonian communicator out there willing to endure what has to be done to be elected president.

Tom Littlewood is a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The books he has written include Horner of Illinois, a biography of Gov. Henry Horner.

April 1990/Illinois Issues/31

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