When the Third Time Wasn't The Charm

Adlai Stevenson III recalls his father's three tries for the White House, and discusses what lessons they hold for Mitt Romney.

Former Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson speaks at a campaign event for John F. Kennedy, on November 1, 1960, in San Francisco, California.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

If  anyone in America can understand Mitt Romney's optimism about a possible third run for the White House, it might be Adlai Stevenson III. The former two-term U.S. senator from Illinois was in his 20s when his father, Adlai Stevenson II, lost to Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 only to make a another, failed push at the 1960 Democratic convention to be the standard bearer for a third consecutive time.

The elder Stevenson, who died in 1965 while serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had had a mammoth career, but today he’s recalled mostly as his generation’s indefatigable Charlie Brown. His son, a loyal Democrat at 84, offered Bloomberg Politics contributor Steve Friess some thoughts on his father, and Romney. This conversation was edited and condensed.

Q: What do you remember about your father’s presidential runs?

A: Well, he was drafted in 1952. He didn’t want to run. He was governor of Illinois, loved being governor, was getting a corrupt government reformed. And I'm sure he was thinking, also, that it would be very tough after the Democrats had been in the White House for, what, 20 years? But when your party drafts you, he didn’t think he could say no to that.

Q: But he lost and ran again. Did anyone ever suggest to him that his time had passed, that it wasn’t a good idea?

A: By 1960, yes, that certainly happened. But in ’56 there was still definitely an appetite for him and what he was saying.

Q: What motivates somebody to run again and again for president?

A: Well, I don't know about again and again, but you were motivated, in the old days at least, by service. My family was motivated about five generations. Without my great-great-grandfather, there wouldn't have been a President Lincoln. Every generation served one way or another, not all of them by running for president. Adlai I was the vice president for Grover Cleveland.

Q: Do you think that’s what Romney’s doing?

A: Honestly, I really don't know. Maybe it's just my old age, I don't know, but what was his agenda last time? Does anybody know? Did he even know? What was he running for?

I have no reason to think it's just ego. I assume he wants to be of service. Whether he knows how to be of service, and whether he has the character that it takes, it's not entirely clear to me. The old, the original Senator Henry Cabot Lodge said there's no class more unfit for the presidency than the businessman. And if you look back in history, where is the great president who was a businessman? George [W.] Bush was a businessman, and look at how that turned out. Where? [1940 GOP nominee] Wendell Willkie might have made a good one. Can you think of a businessman who became a great leader?

Q: Is your father’s experience different than Romney's?

A: Well, my father hammered out an agenda, the New America, between his runs for president. That's where Medicare originated. And it took him more than one run for president because in the first campaign, he didn't have time, he didn’t want to run and he got drafted at the convention.  By the second time, he had his agenda in place and a passionate following. But gee, beating Eisenhower? And those were good economic times, there weren't a lot of complaints. What has Mr. Romney done since his last run to lay out his agenda? I don’t really think he has one.

Q: I have read that in the intervening years between the 1952 and 1956 runs, your father campaigned for Democrats and was credited with helping them take back the Congress in 1954. Romney did that, too, raising a lot of money and helping candidates and the Republicans won big in 2014.

A: I don’t remember any of that. I remember my father spent that time studying the world. By the time he'd run for president, he was welcomed as a hero everywhere in the world. He couldn't go to India without seeing Nehru. He was such a hero in the world that the Eisenhower Administration had to make him an official ambassador of goodwill. That's what I recall.

Q: After your father lost twice–by a wider margin the second time–he still tried to the get the nomination again in 1960. What was that about?

A: Well, by then, you know, he was really hooked. He wanted to see his program enacted.

Q: When people think about your father now, we think about how he was nominated twice and lost twice. That’s the thumbnail of what most Americans learn about him in school. Is that frustrating to you?

A: I'm not sure I'd use that word, but I know what you're saying. Among older people, I encounter tremendous nostalgia, memories of a different time, a different America, a different politics and a different man. But your generation and younger have no memories at all. It's a great pity and perilous that we don't remember.  Back then, the purpose wasn't to win. The purpose was to serve. That meant discussing the issues, laying out your program, informing the people so they could make a sound judgment. And that's what he did.

Q: So is that what Mitt Romney has to look forward to if he runs and loses again?

A: I suppose it is. I guess that’s something he’ll have to consider. 

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