The governor of Illinois is an uncommon man with the interests of the common man at heart.
When the politically unknown Adlai E. Stevenson was elected Governor of Illinois in 1948 by a record-breaking plurality of 572,000 votes, many local political observers contended that the magnitude of his victory should be attributed less to his own strength than to his opponent’s weakness. They may have been partly right. But today few persons would bet against Stevenson’s ability to repeat the accomplishment, regardless of who his rival might be.
A poll taken in Chicago several months ago by a professional agency at the behest of Republican ward leaders indicated that Stevenson would get 10 per cent of the votes cast by registered Republicans if he ran for reelection. That his stock as a Presidential candidate has been boosted by Truman’s withdrawal is small comfort to the Grand Old Party in Illinois and offers no cause for rejoicing to Republicans nationally. For here is one Democratic office-holder who seems almost immune to the ills that now rack his party at various levels throughout the country. This political amateur who looks and talks like a kindly professor of English has aroused amazement, apprehension, and grudging admiration among the professionals since he first stepped before a hostile legislature early in 1949.
Although his name meant nothing to most Illinois voters in 1948, Stevenson had had experience in important but unglamorous federal offices, and his ancestors had been prominent in politics, both state and national, for generations. His grandfather, for whom he was named, was Vice President during Grover Cleveland’s second term in the White House, and his father Lewis Stevenson, was Secretary of State of Illinois from 1914 to 1916. A great-grandfather on the maternal side, Jesse W. Fell, was a close associate of Abraham Lincoln.
Born fifty-two years ago in Los Angeles, where his father was then a newspaper executive, Stevenson was brought to Bloomington, Illinois, at the age of six. He grew up in that college and farm-market town of 40,000 inhabitants, where his mother’s family owned the Daily Pantagraph, still one of central Illinois’s leading newspapers. At Princeton he was managing editor of the campus newspaper and seemed to be headed for a career in journalism after his graduation in 1922. He worked for a short time in the editorial department of the Pantagraph, and then, yielding to his father’s wishes, entered Northwestern University’s law school. He got his degree in 1926 and began the practice of law in Chicago. While a young attorney, Stevenson met and married Ellen Borden, whose family owns the dairy products firm. Public life never appealed to Mrs. Stevenson, and the divorce she demanded soon after he became Governor is pr9bably his greatest political liability.
Stevenson entered government service in the early days of the New Deal, George N, Peek, an Illinoisan who had been associated with Stevenson’s father in pressing for better farm legislation, was appointed administrator of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and he took the youthful lawyer to Washington as his special counsel in 1933. Stevenson had early become interested in international affairs, and gave up the presidency of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations to go with Peek. Back in Chicago in 1935, he was elected to that office for two more terms. After France fell in 1940, he became active on the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies and through promoting rallies for this group came into dose contact with the foreign staff of the Chicago Daily News and with its publisher, Colonel Frank Knox. As soon as Knox was named Secretary of the Navy, he pressed Stevenson to become his special assistant and personal counsel. Stevenson joined him late in 1941 and remained with the Secretary until his death in 1944. He served as special assistant to Secretaries of State Stettinius and Byrnes in 1945 and was a member of the United States delegation to the San Francisco Conference on International Organization. At the first U. N. General Assembly he was senior adviser to the United States delegation; he attended the General Assemblies of 1946 and 1947 in New York as a delegate.
When Stevenson returned to Illinois late in 1947, local Democratic leaders, without much hope of victory, faced the task of picking a team to run for Governor and United States Senator the following year. Liberals were urging that Paul H. Douglas, a University of Chicago professor and a marine combat veteran, be chosen as the candidate for Governor. Douglas had served in the officially non-partisan Chicago City Council and had bucked the Democratic organization in primaries without success. Soon Stevenson, with his experience in the federal government, was being boomed for the Senate. At the last minute, for reasons not made dear, the party leaders switched their choices, putting Douglas on the ballot for Senator and Stevenson for Governor. There has been considerable speculation about the reasons for the change. The deciding factor was probably a desire to match the well-known Douglas, a supposedly stronger Democrat, against the tougher Republican candidate, and to pit Stevenson against the weaker member of the G.O.P. team. In any event, the campaign was hardly under way before it became dear that the candidate for Governor was going to pull his own weight.
Stevenson has been compared to both Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt as an orator. He has some of the Emancipator’s ability to frame literary documents on scratch paper while on his way to a meeting hall. His inaugural address as Governor is said to have been composed on the train taking him to the state capital for the occasion. Another short-order offering was his recent invitation to the Republicans to nominate their best possible man to oppose him for the governorship. “It is of little importance,” he said, “whether the next Governor of Illinois is named Adlai Stevenson, but it is of the highest importance that he finish what we have started. No matter then who loses, the people will win.” Like Roosevelt, Stevenson has the ability to convince his audiences that he is an uncommon man with the interests of the common man at heart.
When the ballots were counted in 1948, Stevenson carried the state by 572,000 votes, Douglas by 407,000, and Truman by 33,000.
That a Democrat could be elected Governor by more than half a million votes and find a Republican majority in the state Senate and only an eight-member Democratic margin in the lower house testifies to the peculiar system by which legislators are chosen in Illinois. That was the situation Stevenson faced when he took office in 1949. It became worse in 1950, when both houses went Republican in the off-year election. This obviously unrepresentative government in Illinois stems primarily from the Assembly’s long refusal to reapportion its election districts every ten years, as required by the state constitution. Stevenson’s record of accomplishment in the face of legislative hostility is due chiefly to his continuous appeal to the electorate. On television monthly, on the radio more frequently, and in hundreds of personal appearances throughout the state he has kept the people constantly aware of the issues.
His administration has been chiefly engaged with streamlining the state government, cutting out waste, applying the money thus saved where the need is greatest, and holding the line against legislative pork-barreling. During his first few months in office the Governor ordered 1,300 jobs cut from the state pay roll. Fifty of these sinecures had been held by newspaper editors friendly to the former regime. To undertake the long-range task of introducing efficiency into executive operations, Stevenson appointed Walter V. Schaefer, a New Deal lawyer then teaching at Northwestern University.
Bent on giving Illinois better law enforcement, the Governor knew that reform of the state police was a necessary preliminary step. Appointments to the force had hitherto been purely political. Stevenson introduced the merit system and made professional training compulsory for every member. This reform has visibly improved law enforcement in Illinois.
In the early days of his administration Stevenson was determined to call a convention to modernize the state’s outmoded constitution. When the plan was blocked by the legislature, he spearheaded a drive for the next best thing, the Gateway amendment to facilitate amendments to the constitution. This was passed in 1950.
Under the Stevenson administration truck license fees have been increased to finance the first major program of road construction in twenty years. State aid to the public schools has been doubled. Appropriations for welfare services in general have been increased, and the state’s facilities for the mentally ill have been improved to a point where they now rank among the best in the nation.
On the civil-rights front Stevenson has worked, so far without success, for state F.E.P.C. legislation. To the same end he has instituted new procedures in the state employment service. Questions regarding race, religion, and nationality have been dropped from job applications, and employers can no longer specify racial requirements in applying to the state for workers.
The Governor’s record-breaking 141 vetoes have been almost as important as his positive performance. He prevented passage of the Broyles bill, a state counterpart of the McCarran act which was in some ways a worse menace to civil rights. Another veto killed the Larson bill, a measure which would have reduced the principle of local option to an absurdity. Public housing in Chicago would have been virtually killed by its provision that all sites for such construction must be approved by the voters of the surrounding area. Most of the Governor’s other vetoes served to keep the legislature from spending nonexistent funds on pet projects of their constituents.
Unlike some amateurs in public office, Stevenson has not hesitated to use his reputation with the electorate in political maneuvering for the cause of good government. Late in 1950 death created a vacancy on the Illinois Supreme Court. The term was about to expire, and party leaders began looking for a deserving Democrat to sponsor in the June, 1951, election. The next thing they knew, Stevenson had appointed Walter Schaefer, his executive-department streamliner, to 1111 the vacancy, and the politicians had no choice but to slate him for election.
The numerous scandals that have rocked Chicago and Illinois in the past few months have not left the Stevenson administration entirely untouched. While the general quality of the Governor’s appointments has been high, some dishonest politicians have been placed in state jobs through connections with the Democratic organization. But Stevenson’s reaction to charges involving his subordinates has contrasted sharply with that of other Democratic office-holders. The culprits have been called on the carpet immediately and offered the opportunity to establish reasonable doubt of their guilt. Failure to do so has meant immediate dismissal.
When Republicans in Illinois look for a think in Stevenson’s political armor, they usually settle on his character deposition for Alger Hiss during the latter’s perjury trial. In reply, Stevenson asks them if they would have lied about their impression of Hiss in order to be on the popular side. G.O.P. candidates have also tried to hold Stevenson responsible for the West Frankfort coalmine disaster. The truth is that he had urged passage of a better mine-safety code at the last session of the legislature and his proposal had been buried through the efforts of downstate members of the Assembly, most of them Republicans.
Stevenson’s brand of liberalism is as free from dogma as his Unitarian religious persuasion. His fundamental attitude toward government is that it must be dean, efficient, and dose to the people; that the people can then be relied upon to shape it in such a way as to fulfill the promise of democracy.
A supporter of the principles of the Truman Administration’s foreign policy, Stevenson has summed up his view of the world situation as follows:
The preservation of the free world hangs upon our ability to win the allegiance of those millions and millions of people throughout the world who have not yet made their choice between our democratic system on the one hand and the promises which communism offers on the other. That choice will be mainly shaped by our own performance. It will turn upon such things as our ability to avoid the disruptions of depression, to guarantee equality of opportunity, to narrow the gulf separating economic status, to preserve freedom of thought and action, to make democracy accord in practice with its promises and professions of faith.
Speaking at the battlefield of Gettysburg last November, the Governor of Lincoln’s state made this declaration about one of our chief domestic problems:
Proud of the past, patient with what Washington called “the impostures of pretended patriotism,” it Is for us, the living, to rekindle the hot, indignant fires of faith in the free man, free in body, free in mind, free in spirit, free to hold any opinion, free to search and find the truth for himself; the old faith that Is ever new—that burned so brightly here at Gettysburg long ago.