When TV Changed Politics: Adlai Stevenson Vs. Ike Adlai Stevenson, who tried to "talk sense to the American people," was an old-fashioned intellectual who believed in long speeches and the power of words. But in 1952, Stevenson faced Dwight Eisenhower on a new battleground — television — and lost.
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When TV Changed Politics: Adlai Stevenson Vs. Ike

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When TV Changed Politics: Adlai Stevenson Vs. Ike

When TV Changed Politics: Adlai Stevenson Vs. Ike

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. Tonight, millions of people will watch the final presidential debate, at least those who can drag themselves away from the finale of the TV show "Project Runway." Television is how most voters experience elections these days.

But in 1952, TV had not yet come into its own, and politicians were grappling with how to use the medium effectively. Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson was an old-fashioned intellectual who believed in long speeches and the power of words. In our series this week called Contenders, we're hearing about some of the most interesting candidates from elections past who never made it all the way to The White House. Today, producers Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries have the story of a man who wasn't ready for prime time.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NEWTON MINNOW (Assistant Legal Counsel, Adlai Stevenson Presidential Campaign): My name is Newton Minnow. In 1952, I worked as assistant legal counsel to Governor Adlai Stevenson.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Stevenson's the only one, and he wears no boss's coat.

Mr. ADLAI STEVENSON III: My name is Adlai Stevenson, Adlai Stevenson III. I'm the son of Adlai Stevenson II who ran for president of the United States in 1952.

Mr. MINNOW: We were in the midst of the Korean War. President Harry Truman was extremely unpopular. The country's view of the Democratic Party was very, very low. The opponent on the Republican side was General Dwight Eisenhower, who was one of the most beloved, popular persons in the country. He had won the war for the American people. He could have had the nomination of either party.

Mr. STEVENSON: Yeah, it was shaping up to be a very difficult year for the Democrats.

(Soundbite of radio announcement)

Unidentified Man #2: Until a few months ago, the name of Adlai Stevenson meant little to the people of the United States...

Ms. JEAN BAKER (Author, "The Stevensons: A Biography of an American Family"): My name is Jean Baker, and I wrote the book, "The Stevensons: A Biography of an American Family." Adlai Stevenson had been the governor of Illinois, but he had not been involved in politics for very long.

Mr. MINNOW: But he was very well educated. He had gone to Princeton, and he had written and spoken a great deal, and Adlai believed that a political campaign is an educational process. It's an education for the voter, and it's an education for the candidate.

Ms. BAKER: And so, Stevenson decides to go throughout the country and create a informative moving seminar for the voters. Here's what he said, let's talk sense to the American people.

Unidentified Man #3: Governor Adlai Stevenson receives an enthusiastic welcome in Baltimore. The governor expresses himself forcefully on the subject of taxes.

Former Governor ADLAI STEVENSON II (Former Democratic Presidential Nominee, 1952): I don't like taxes. I doubt if anybody does. I shall do everything I can to reduce it, but I shall make no promises that I know I cannot keep.

Mr. MINNOW: He had great faith in the public, great faith in the voters. Adlai believed that you don't just tell him what they want to hear. You tell them the truth.

Former Gov. STEVENSON: And I'll bank on the American people. I'll bank on them even in an election year to understand straight talk and the need for a balanced budget in this country.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Ms. BAKER: Adlai Stevenson's strength, which was these brilliant speeches that he gave. During the presidential campaign against Eisenhower, they became a liability.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man #4: Ike for president. Ike for president. You like Ike. I like Ike. Everybody likes Ike for president. Hang out the banners, beat the drums, we'll take Ike to Washington.

Mr. STEVENSON: The people who did the Eisenhower campaign were Madison Avenue Advertising executives.

Mr. DAVID SCHWARTZ (Chief Curator, Museum of the Moving Image): My name is David Schwartz. I'm the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image. It was Rosa Reeves who was most famous for M&M melts in your mouth, not in your hands. He's the one who really knew that you could kind of boil a campaign down to a little sound bite or a jingle, and millions of millions of people saw that ad and decided they liked Ike.

(Soundbite of campaign song)

Unidentified Man #4: We'll take Ike to Washington. Vote for Eisenhower.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Adlai Stevenson, he didn't really believe in things like this. Stevenson just didn't even like the idea of commercials at all. He just felt like, you know, you shouldn't try to sell a presidential candidate the same way you would sell cereal or soap.

Mr. STEVENSON: He just thought, this is not what politics is about.

Former Gov. STEVENSON: For more than 23 centuries, humanity has driven to attain the ideal.

Mr. STEVENSON: The Stevenson campaign decided early on that they would buy 30 minute blocks of time on TV, and he would do speeches, 30-minute speeches.

Former Gov. STEVENSON: If each of us lives up to the moral and the ethical obligations of citizenship...

Mr. STEVENSON: But nobody tuned in to watch them.

Unidentified Man #5: Adlai Stevenson goes west. The Democratic candidate's tour includes stops and speeches in Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Texas.

Mr. STEVENSON: He was on a platform campaigning, and a photographer below the platform took a photograph which included the sole of his shoe, which had a hole in it. And that photograph became a symbol of this man who, you know, really was thinking more about the issues than he was his shoes.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: And it caught on, and suddenly, buttons were sprouting with, you know, in a shape of a shoe with a hole in it.

Unidentified Man #6: I'd rather have a man with a hole in his shoe than a hole in everything he says...

Ms. BAKER: The symbol that many people have held is that Stevenson is frugal. Look, here's this candidate, and he even walks around with holes in his shoe. But the real story of that photograph is that Stevenson, moments before he's going to give the speech, he's not doing what politicians usually do. They point in the second row to Betty, who's helped him on the campaign trail, or Harold, who they think is in charge of the local newspaper. But Stevenson doesn't know of that. He's looking down at his text and making corrections.

Unidentified Man #7: This is the final night before one of the most vital elections in the history of our country. Tomorrow, you, the voter, will make the final decision.

Ms. BAKER: On the eve of the election, Stevenson intended to make this last speech one of his best.

Former Gov. STEVENSON: Looking back, I am not wholly content that I have said or said well everything that was in my heart. Talking sensibly and honestly is not always easy. It means saying things that sometimes people don't like to hear. It means risking votes, and candidates are not supposed to do that...

Ms. BAKER: He's into this brilliant end of campaign speech. But they had only paid for 30 minutes and time ran out.

Former Gov. STEVENSON: People who still believe in one another in spite of all the timid, doubting men.

Ms. BAKER: And what the viewers saw at home was Stevenson still talking. But they cannot hear him.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: You know, he probably wasn't paying any attention to the red lights that were going on and off and the hands that were being waved at him. He was concentrating on his message, and he didn't want to cut it short.

Unidentified Man #8: Electric Science National News, Ike's in, and bedlam breaks out amongst the Republican supporters as they hear of their landslide victory.

Mr. MINNOW: The victory for Eisenhower was overwhelming. And I think Adlai carried just a few states. He was never bitter about it. Oh, he wanted to win, of course. But I heard him say this more than once, there are worse things that can happen to a person than losing an election.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) We're going to the gov the we love. He is a gov nobody can shove. We'll make the gov a president of the U, the me and the USA.

NORRIS: Our series, Contenders, is produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries with help from Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. Tomorrow, Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to seek the nomination of a major party. You can hear other stories in this series as well as Adlai Stevenson's speech accepting the 1952 Democratic nomination at npr.org. You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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