Adlai E. Stevenson III has lived through more than eight decades of American history, and his ancestors have helped lead this state and country since the days of Abraham Lincoln. Now retired from politics, he sees Illinois and the U.S. as being in dire need of leadership.|
"I am hoping (President Barack) Obama will be stronger in his second administration," said the former Democratic U.S. senator and two-time candidate for Illinois governor during a recent visit to the Quad-Cities. "Our Congress will not act in any responsible way without strong presidential leadership."
Mr. Stevenson, now 82, draws from a lifelong interest in politics as he sits back in retirement and offers armchair assessments. He has gained a few pounds since his political days and has a few more freckles on his head several decades after emerging for good from smoke-filled back rooms.
His demeanor is more relaxed and less statesman-like, but his grasp of most issues and their global importance remains strong, as does his well-timed dry wit.
During his political career, Mr. Stevenson served two years in the Illinois House, was Illinois treasurer from 1967 to 1970, and was a U.S. senator from 1970 to 1981. In 1976, he was among a handful of people considered for vice president by Jimmy Carter. In 1982 and 1986, he ran for governor of Illinois — losing both times to Jim Thompson.
While in the Senate he helped author the International Banking Act, the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act, and the Bayh Dole Act to foster cooperative research. He was the first chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee charged with implementing a code of conduct, which he helped draft.
In 1979, Mr. Stevenson authored the Comprehensive Counterterrorism Act, which warned of spectacular acts of disruption and destruction. An amendment he proposed would have reduced assistance to Israel until settlement policies were consistent with U.S. policy, but it failed.
In his first run for Illinois governor, in 1982, the initial vote count showed Mr. Stevenson the winner, but an official recount gave the victory to Republican Jim Thompson. The decision went to the state Supreme Court, with Mr. Stevenson presenting evidence of punch-card irregularities. The court denied a recount by a one-vote margin.
"I helped write the comprehensive anti-terrorism act of 1979, and that alienated the Israeli lobby. When the issue of a recount went to the Supreme Court, (Justice) Seymour Simon went with the Republicans to deny the recount because of Israel," he said. "In reality, I was trying to help Israel. It's an issue that still needs resolution."
In his second gubernatorial campaign, in 1986, two followers of the Lyndon LaRouche faction of the Democratic Party won primary nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. Mr. Stevenson objected to their platform and organized the Solidarity Party, with Mike Howlett as the candidate for lieutenant governor. The slate was endorsed by the regular Democratic organization. It won 40 percent of the vote, but not the election.
Party leaders asked Mr. Stevenson to run against Rod Blagojevich in the 2001 primary, but he declined.
Following his political career, Mr. Stevenson served as chairman of SC&M Investment Management Corp. and was co-chair of Hua Mei Capital Co., a Chinese/American financing intermediary. He has received the Order of Sacred Treasure from Japan and is an honorary professor at Renmin University in China.
He and his wife, Nancy, now split their time between a home on the North Side of Chicago and a farm at Hanover, near Galena.
Since 2008, much of their energy has been directed to the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy, which was established in the home of his father on land managed by the Lake County Forest Preserve near Libertyville, Ill.
The center organizes large conferences and smaller monthly programs to address a wide range of topics. It might be campaign finance one day and Iran the next. One session on the presidential nominating process drew notables such as then-U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, the late George McGovern and Jesse Jackson, said Mrs. Stevenson who is president of the center. The programs are recorded and archived by WBEZ, Chicago, (wbez.org), and the Stevensons hope to expand the exposure through public radio and television.
Mr. Stevenson said he sees no obvious answers to the problems faced by his home state.
"The problems in Illinois pretty much parallel the breakdown of the party organizations in the state," Mr. Stevenson said. "When Blagojevich was elected, there was no party organization left. (House Speaker Mike) Madigan and Richard Daley tried to get me to run a third time, but I had no interest.
"The Democrats used to win elections by campaigning. When my father ran for governor, he spent $157,000. In his day, there was no pay to play. He recruited the best leaders he could get, regardless of their party background. Now all the candidates do are flyovers and fundraisers. I wouldn't go into this kind of politics."
"We have lost our balance,' Mr. Stevenson said, adding he would love to see the political parties reorganized. Modern conventions, he said, are just media events.
Mrs. Stevenson said she holds Gov. Pat Quinn responsible for the political infighting in the Illinois Legislature. As a young crusading politician, Gov. Quinn led the battle to eliminate the three-member representative districts that forced members of opposite parties to work together.
"He doesn't have people in the Legislature that respect him," her husband added. "He is a governor without constituents."
Washington, D.C., also is buckling under a lack of leadership, Mr. Stevenson said. With much bigger problems looming, President Obama is worried about gun control, he noted.
"If the president can't handle gun control, how is he going to handle the international monetary system, much less the Syrians?" he asked.
The former senator also questioned the nation's policy toward China. "We could make China a big opportunity, but instead people want to make them the enemy," he said.
"I've gotten to know some Chinese scientists, and there is a systemic difference. For research to be effective, it must be long- term, with reliable funding. That's what they have. They can plan decades ahead, while we are subject to political and budget cycles."
While Mr. Stevenson occasionally second-guesses his decision to leave the U.S. Senate, he is delighted with the path he chose, he said.
"Was it a mistake to leave the Senate? I had some seniority. It was collegial then, but it was starting to change. It was becoming episodic, and the issues were getting trivialized. In 1976, Richard J. Daley wanted me to run for president. I decided I wasn't ready, but in retrospect I was relatively ready."
"I don't recall any partisanship in the Senate," said Mr. Stevenson of his time in office. "We were divided, but not along party lines. When it was time to write legislation, we would lock the doors. When we opened them, all the lobbyists would flow in.
"Now the doors are open; the senators no longer legislate; and the staff is writing the legislation. They are elected one day and start raising money for the next campaign the next."
Mr. Stevenson was one of a handful of candidates considered for vice president by Jimmy Carter, but Walter Mondale was selected. Mrs. Stevenson said she may have killed her husband's chances.
"I met with Rosalyn Carter, and she said she wanted the children to live in the White House and be in on everything. She wanted them to be ambassadors," Mrs. Stevenson said. "One of the things I was so grateful to my father-in-law for was that he wanted us to live separate and independent lives. That was a great comfort to me, and I told her so.
"For me, it was more important that the family be active together," she added. "I think I did him in," she said of her husband's vice presidential chances.
Today, this nation is in need of political leaders, Mr. Stevenson said. Modern leaders should have real-world experience. They should have lived in China or Africa and seen the world from outside the Western prism, he said.
"The (Chuck) Hagel nomination (for Secretary of Defense) is interesting. He speaks frankly and with integrity, and has the courage to say what he thinks. So many do the politically expedient thing and won't stand up and say what they think -- even when it's a life-or-death situation.
"A lot of people are very concerned. The anxiety is palpable," Mr. Stevenson said. "Politics is so poisonous. Who will invest in you if you can't be bought? The quality (of politicians) has deteriorated even as the need has increased.
"So many want power just for the sake of power."
Stevenson on the issue
Former U.S. Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III offered his thoughts on these current issues:
-- Gun control:"People aren't dumb. They know you don't need an AK-47 to shoot deer. What the nation needs is a national register of owners and guns to keep them out of the hands of those who would misuse them."
-- Health care: "We still have the world's most inefficient health-care system. There are gains that can be had."
-- Earmarks:"Every time they create another subsidy or earmark, legislators create another bureaucracy to manage it. You don't realize that as you're doing it."
-- Global issues: "Global institutions such as the United Nations and International Monetary Fund reflect the world of 1944-45 and need to be invigorated. Leadership to do so must come from the president."
-- National primary: "All primaries should be on one of three selected dates starting in June. This would shorten the campaign and force candidates to focus on national issues instead of being able to make promises to each state."
-- Election of judges: "We are the only country, with the exception of radical Bolivia, that elects judges. Why? So their campaigns can be financed by trial lawyers and unions. They should not be politically appointed, but approved by a nonpolitical commission."
-- Redistricting: "Reform should be a high priority, with a goal of eliminating the one-party districts all over the country."
-- Broadband: "Access to all areas of this country is fundamental and has to be provided by the government if necessary."
-- Pensions:"(Chicago) Mayor Richard J. Daley never supported collective bargaining for public employees, and he was the Boss Mayor. If you are a public official, you have no skin in the game because you are giving away taxpayer money. I don't know how you undo it, but politicians have no incentive to take on public employee unions. As state treasurer, I fired patronage employees every year to cut payroll. I'm the Democrat opposing collective bargaining for public employees and Jim Thompson, the Republican, would give anything to anyone. How about that?"
-- State government: "As treasurer, I testified before the 1970 Constitutional Convention to eliminate my own office. We should organize the state to address responsibilities and attempt to eliminate elected officials and then bureaucracies. I proposed a commission to look at all units of government statewide, and every last one came down on me. I got no support, but we have too much government."
-- Gambling: "It taxes the poor and sick and leads to corruption. The better countries of the world don't tolerate it -- except in a few cases only for foreigners. My father came down hard on gambling."
-- Passenger rail: "Look at history, and the rapid development of this country is related to transportation -- starting with canals. Then Lincoln saw it in the railroads, then highways and airlines. The objective should be to get people into mass transit and freight, off the highways and onto railroads. The efficiencies are enormous."
-- Military spending: "Think of the money that's wasted in the Pentagon."
-- Newspapers: "How do you inform people in the Information Age? My family started the (Bloomington) Pantagraph, and the traditional gatekeepers are still very important."
Adlai E. Stevenson III
— Home: North Side of Chicago and farm near Galena.
— Family: Wife, Nancy; four children; nine great-grandchildren.
— Education: 1952 graduate of Harvard College, 1957 graduate of Harvard Law School.
— Author of: “The Black Book,” a view on governing through five generations of his family dating back to Abraham Lincoln. Nancy Stevenson has written “Horse Dreams,” a children’s book.
— Service: U.S. Marines 1952-54, including service in Korea. Member of the Marine Reserves until 1961.
— Public service: Illinois House, 1965-67; state treasurer, 1967-70; U.S. Senate, 1970-1981; Democratic candidate for governor of Illinois, 1982 and 1986.
— Ancestors: Father, Adlai E. Stevenson II, held several positions under presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman; was elected governor of Illinois in 1948; and was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, losing both times to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Was appointed ambassador and represented the U.S. at the United Nations.
Grandfather Adlai I was a member of the House of Representatives; first assistant postmaster general under President Grover Cleveland; elected vice president in 1892; unsuccessfully ran for vice president with William Jennings Bryan in 1900; and elected governor of Illinois in 1912.
Great-great grandfather Jesse Fell was a patron of Abraham Lincoln and helped organize the Lincoln-Douglas Debates; founded Illinois State University; co-founded the town of Clinton, Ill., and the Bloomington Observer and McLean County Advocate newspapers -- now the Bloomington Pantagraph; known nationally for his love of trees.
— Today: Adlai III and his wife run the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy, Mettawa (Libertyville), Ill.
— On the Web: adlai3.com, nancywriter.com, stevensoncenterondemocracy.org
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