Study Guide

Adlai Stevenson in Checkers Speech

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Adlai Stevenson

What's in a Name?

Adlai Stevenson II was the product of a powerful Midwest political family and a fancy Ivy League education. His grandfather, Adlai I, had been Vice President, and his own father was considered for that position, too. His great-grandfather had been a close buddy of Abraham Lincoln.

The Stevensons were definitely doing okay.

A young, well-educated, and well-connected man like Stevenson had tons of opportunities available to him, but he chose to study law after a sit-down with a Supreme Court Justice. Yep, he casually met with one of the most powerful men in the country for a little chat on career counseling: that's the level of political clout the Stevenson name had.

Adlai the Aide

Like lots of other young men of stature at the time, Stevenson would eventually transition from law to politics. It was the family tradition. Early on, he served as an assistant and a secretary to a bunch of wealthy and powerful people. Stevenson was politically active during the heyday of President Roosevelt's New Deal and had a small but important role in getting some of FDR's policies enacted.

Bouncing around from one special assistant position to the next served him well through the 1930s all the way to 1948, when Stevenson figured he might as well become governor of Illinois. He was encouraged by Jacob Avery, the powerful political boss of Chicago at the time, without whom he couldn't have succeeded, family name or not. Stevenson spent his time as governor cleaning up police hiring practices, tightening up the state constitution, and generally trying to bring some rationality to the Red Scare craziness that was terrifying Americans at the time.

Who, Me? President?

Stevenson had no intention of living in the White House, but President Truman and many of his friends and colleagues encouraged him to run. He still wasn't interested—he didn't think he was physically or temperamentally right for the job (source). After his opening speech at the Democratic convention drew ecstatic cheers and ovations, he allowed himself to be nominated and won the nomination on the third ballot.

Stevenson's anti-anti-communism rhetoric would come back to haunt him during the 1952 presidential election, when he'd be hammered by accusations of being soft on communism. It also didn't help his support in the South that he was pro-desegregation. But what hurt him the most that he was running against probably the most popular guy in the country after Jack Benny—Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and WWII-winner Dwight D. Eisenhower.

After the loss to Eisenhower, it came as some surprise that Stevenson pursued the nomination again in 1956. He was crushed in that general election by Eisenhower. In 1960, he announced he wouldn't actively campaign but shucks, he'd accept the nomination if asked. When he saw that the votes were with JFK, he accepted a job as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. instead, and served there with distinction until his death in 1965.

The media has to hang something on every politician, and Stevenson's moniker was that he was an "egghead." Nixon liked to call him that because he was bald. He was wealthy, aristocratic, erudite, Princeton-educated—not exactly the "people's candidate." But Stevenson took it in stride. Paraphrasing the Communist Manifesto, he once told an audience, "Eggheads of the World, unite! You have nothing to lose but your yolks!" (Source)

Legend has it that one of Stevenson's supporters shouted, "Governor Stevenson, you have the vote of all the thinking people," to which he replied, "That's not enough, madam. I need a majority." (Source)

He never got one.

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