Ahhhh, what a campaign that was: the governor of Illinois speaking with wit, and stirring depth, never referring to his opponent, Gen. Eisenhower, as anything less than “very distinguished.”
How uninspiring the current, money-soaked campaign seems when what passes for vision is the Senate GOP leader’s mission: “the single most important thing we have to achieve is to make Obama a one-term president.”
A squall of negative TV ads from both sides portray the president as a socialist, vaguely un-American, possibly Muslim, and his opponent, former governor and sucessful businessman Mitt Romney, has become a malevolent Daddy Warbucks who chains Little Orphan Annie to her bed at night.
Stevenson’s name is seldom mentioned today, but he was literally drafted by the Democratic Party in 1952. His speeches compared to current campaign rhetoric are like leaving a small stuffy room and drinking in the cool mountain air.
And who could dislike a man who took his inevitable defeat with wit, “It hurts too much to laugh, and I’m too old to cry.”
Maybe it was the times that enlarged and uplifted the language of Stevenson’s candidacy: the Cold War when two enemies stared in hatred at one another, both with weapons that could destroy each other and the world.
The existential threat of Communism also created what we now know to be a corrosive threat to our freedom from within: Demagogic politicians and false patriots quick to accuse anyone different as a Communist.
Even our great wartime Chief of Staff George Marshall was not exempt from accusations during the zealotry of the Red Scare.
Stevenson had the political courage to brand Communism for what it is but also warn of the damage done to democracy by hysterical anti-communism:
“Communism is abhorrent. It is strangulation of the individual; it is death for the soul. Americans who have surrendered to this misbegotten idol have surrendered their right to our trust. And there can be no secure place for them in our public life.
“Yet, we must take care not to burn down the barn to kill the rats. The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the Bill of Rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak of anti-communism.”
I had first-hand knowledge of what the former Illinois governor meant by fear breeding repression when the Great Commie Hunter of the day, Sen. Joe McCarthy, came to speak at a fair in Danbury, Conn., near my prep school.
A precocious member of my senior class, Roy Jackson, then 16, went to the speech, arriving just as the senator was waving a paper with the names of (fictitious) communists in the State Department.
“But how many have you caught, Joe,” piped Roy, who weighed about 130 pounds. He was seized by two state troopers and charged with “inciting to riot,” charges subsequently torn up personally by the state’s governor.
Little Roy’s experience was a measure of just how much on edge the country was in those days.
There were many then who believed we needed to shove Russia back to its national boundaries, a pushing contest like the prelude to a schoolyard fight — the “rollback” theory espoused by Ike’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
Only Dulles’ “brinkmanship” wasn’t a schoolyard taunt; it was playing chicken with itchy fingers on weapons that could incinerate civilization itself. Ike, a supreme politician, found a way to rein in Dulles without humiliating him.
In fact, Eisenhower and Stevenson saw the Cold War similarly as a long- term contest, what John F. Kennedy later called “a long twilight struggle.”
“Let’s talk sense to the American people,” Stevenson said in his acceptance speech. “Let’s tell them the truth… that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you are attacked, but a long patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man — war, poverty, and tyranny — and the assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each.”
The 1952 race was uneven from the start; Ike was the heroic, victorious World War II commander who, out of uniform, had the all-American modest look and twang of a Kansas wheat farmer.
Ivy League educated, elegant of speech and near-bald, Stevenson was tagged by columnists of the day as an “egghead,” but he had something to teach if you listened closely and thought about what he said.
Patriotism, he said, is more than boasting or wearing a flag in your lapel: “When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.
“Men who have offered their lives for their country know that patriotism is not the fear of something; it is the love of something.”
Stevenson lost twice to Eisenhower, but the depth of his thoughts and the lift of his speech left something enduring, an example that so far makes today’s candidates look small, indeed.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.