Fifteen presidential election cycles ago, Adlai E. Stevenson II, an Illinois lawyer and incumbent governor, first ran for president against Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Throughout the campaign, Stevenson would, in his words, “talk sense to the American people.” In his “talks,” Stevenson spoke on the issues, not on individuals; on plans and policy, not on politics; on truth, not on “truthiness”; and on trust, not on fear.
But talking sense had little sway on the American people.
Stevenson lost the election in 1952 (and again in 1956). He received only 89 Electoral College votes to Eisenhower’s 442 in 1952.
Modern presidential electioneering has changed beyond recognition from Stevenson’s day — so dramatically that I cannot image Stevenson willingly running in today’s caustic environment. If anything, Stevenson would be speaking out against the confrontational and toxic nature of the 2016 race.
Were Adlai Stevenson here to witnesses the topics, tone and texture of the present race, what would he say? I think I have a pretty good idea. Recently I re-read speeches Stevenson gave during the 1952 campaign — they are not as boring as you might imagine. In them, I found inspiration for what a presidential campaign ought to be.
I have taken passages from a number of his speeches — beginning at the convention in Chicago through his concession — and melded them into an overall message. The words all come from Stevenson with minimum editing for continuity and gender neutrality.
In the paragraphs that follow, Stevenson still makes a lot of good, plain sense:
A candidate for high office in this country is supposed to have something to say about every sort of issue to every kind of audience. The candidate does his or her best to put beliefs, convictions, into words so that the people who listen can think about them and judge for themselves. The candidate’s whole concern is to find the right words, the true, faithful, explicit words which will make the issues plain and his or her position on those issues clear.
A campaign addressed not to people’s minds and to their best instincts, but to their passions, emotions and prejudices, is unworthy at best. Let us never forget that tension breeds fear; fear, repression; and repression, injustice and tyranny.
We are dealing with human situations, with human emotions, with human intelligence; our purpose must be to reason together for the common betterment of us all; our interest must be, not in controversy, but in results. There is no greater cruelty, in my judgment, than the raising of false hopes. No candidate should exploit human hopes and fears, provide glib solutions and false assurances.
There are many who say too much candor is a dangerous way to campaign — that it is better to talk in generalities, capitalize discontents and leave solutions cloudy and uncertain. But it is better to lose an election than to mislead the people.
If telling you the truth about the world as the candidate sees it should cause you to cast the candidate down, and revile him or her, the candidate should still tell you the truth as he or she sees it. For no office without your gift — including the presidency itself — is worth the price of deception. For I believe with all my heart that those who would beguile the voters by lies and half-truths, or corrupt them by fear and falsehood, are committing spiritual treason against our institutions. They are doing the work of our enemies.
We who believe in our system have always considered it to be the responsibility of presidential candidates to promote wider understanding of the true issues — and not to stir up fear and to spread suspicion. They must do nothing that might array class against class or citizen against citizen in quarrels which tear apart our blessed American family.
Candidates for president should talk as plainly as possible about public questions and admit what they don’t know and what they can’t answer. If the candidate purported to know the right answer to everything, that candidate would be either a knave or a fool. If the candidate even had answers to everything, he or she would probably be just a fool. If the candidate had no emphatic views at all, he or she would probably be just as unworthy, and if he or she were evasive, the candidate would be either cunning or a political coward, of which we have altogether too many. And, finally, if the candidate should arrive at election time with almost everybody satisfied, then you should, by all means, vote against that candidate as the most dangerous charlatan of them all.
I am persuaded that forthright discussion of the real public questions is neither beneath the dignity of political candidates nor above the intelligence of the American people. And it most certainly is the condition precedent to any intelligent choice.