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Music Cues: Adlai Stevenson
February 5, 2001

Scott Simon commentary about Adlai Stevenson

At some point in almost every election season, I miss Adlai Stevenson.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. Although there have been many men and women of intelligence, conviction and wit who have run for president since Mr. Stevenson did in the 1950s, it would be hard to say that many matched his graceful balance of eloquence, humor, and plain, prarie-song sincerity.

A supporter once called out, "Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!" And Adlai Stevenson answered, "That's not enough. I need a majority."

Today, candidates might deliver their own ripostes and one-liners, but they've often been scripted and tested, like advertising slogans. Adlai Stevenson wrote his own speeches, reworking them for rhythm, simile and clarity until the last second. The most famous photograph of him shows the man running for president scrawling a few last lines into the pages of his speech, which are balanced on his shoe, with a prominent hole in its sole. The picture seemed to say: here's a man who crafts lofty thoughts; but his feet are on the ground.

I grew up hearing my parents recollect the thrill of listening to Adlai Stevenson speak when he unexpectedly became the Democratic nominee for president in 1952; and I remember my own excitement when I was thirteen, and my father and I stood near the rear of public plaza along the Chicago River to hear Mr. Stevenson speak in a voice as rich and rolling as Illinois prarie land:

"You are I are fellow passengers," he said, "on the spaceship we call earth. We can blow it up. We can annihilate the thin envelope of soil on which our nourishment depends, and contaminate the thin envelope of air we breathe. We are dependent on the same finite quantities of air, earth, water and yes, I will say, the love that we can give one another."

It was eloquence that didn't just scratch a resentment or fear, but tried to raise the eyes of the audience into the world beyond.

Unfortunately, today politicians often laud Adlai Stevenson for his eloquence -- but resolve never to emulate him. They see his two election losses as object lessons: don't sound too witty, high-minded or elegant.

But more people lose elections than win them, Lincoln lost two himself. Few winners manage to move history along in a more kindly direction than did Adlai Stevenson.

I have a friend who was a teenager in the 1950s, and came home once to find her father, a Republican senator, stretched out with his eyes closed, crying as he listened to Adlai Stevenson speak. She asked, "What's wrong?" And her father told her, "I now know how the people who voted against Lincoln must have felt."