Guest post By Steve Sachs
Politics, they say, is like a young love affair: It makes you passionate, naïve and sometimes blind to reality. The Reagan years were that way for his adoring adherents. So was the brief time we had with JFK. Judged by such romantic metrics, however, the 2020 presidential contest doesn’t measure up. The fervent Trump base is tinged with hate, not love. And my chaste affection for Biden is the political equivalent of holding hands.
But I can bear witness to a political campaign — the 1952 candidacy of Illinois governor Adlai E. Stevenson for president— in which I was head over heels in love.
The seed was planted early in the year when Stevenson appeared on the cover of Time accompanied by an admiring account of his progressive stewardship in Illinois. It projected a fresh look in contrast to the aging faces of the twenty-year reign of the Democratic Party. It underscored Stevenson’s eloquence, just the right touch for a sophomore political science major and budding politician at Haverford College.
The Time article, however, reported that Stevenson professed no interest in the presidency. The political world was left to wonder whether the governor was being coy and would make himself available to a draft. I was ready to become one of his suitors.
The Stevenson seed sprouted at a collegiate mock nominating convention in Harrisburg. The political clubs of a several dozen Pennsylvania colleges and universities participated in a convention in which candidates of all political hues were placed in contention. We at Haverford, along with a coterie of other colleges, including our Quaker neighbor, Swarthmore, led the Stevenson camp. Our opponents favored General Eisenhower.
The convention did not dwell on policy questions. We mirrored our elders. Winning was the watchword. Compromises, trade-offs, “logrolling” and unprincipled deals — “Give us your votes for Stevenson and we will support whatever your prized platform plank may be” — drove the proceedings.
Haverford and Swarthmore proved adept at political wheeling and dealing. The convention nominated Adlai Stevenson.
We immediately sent the governor a telegram informing him of his “nomination.” His reply thanked us for the “high honor” and our hard work on his behalf. He professed again that he was committed to his job as governor and sought no other office. But he didn’t say “never,” and our ardor was unquenched.
The love affair blossomed that summer. I served as a page to the Maryland delegation to the Democratic convention in Chicago. It convened at the Amphitheater, a convention hall adjacent to the odoriferous stockyards on Chicago’s south side. The party headquarters was in the upscale Conrad Hilton Hotel on the lakefront. I bunked at the YMCA, decidedly downscale but within easy walking distance to the Hilton.
As a page, among the party’s satraps, I was a nobody. But I was a nobody with a badge. Except for the rare request to fetch a hot dog or a cup of coffee, I was free to roam the corridors of the Conrad Hilton and attend caucuses to which I was not invited. And I could tour the convention floor — pretending to be on some important mission — without regard to signs, arrows or barricaded aisles.
I was never in “the room where it happened.” But numerous encounters were memorable. I attended a caucus at which Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers and a major force in the party, spoke on behalf of Stevenson, and another addressed by no less a Democratic icon than Eleanor Roosevelt.
Two episodes on the convention floor also remain in memory: During the debate on the civil rights platform plank I was standing in the aisle next to the Texas delegation. An excited delegate, hoping for a repeat of the 1948 Dixiecrat walkout, tugged the sleeve of Allan Shivers, the Texas governor, pleading “Ain’t we goanna git , Alan? Ain’t we goanna git?”
During the balloting I stood alongside a skinny guy with unkempt hair whom I recognized as Massachusetts congressman John F. Kennedy, a Stevenson man. His eyes were fixed on events at the rostrum.
I had the temerity to ask, “How’s it going, congressman?”
“Pretty gooood,” he responded in Bostonese, without ever taking his eyes off the rostrum. (Since he never looked down at me, I guess I can’t say I ever met the 35th president of the United States.)
Stevenson was nominated on the third ballot. His victory was the result of a genuine draft. It promised a thoughtful new look at the challenges that faced the nation and the world in the few years since Hiroshima and the Berlin Wall.
And our candidate was gifted with the wit and wisdom of an unapologetic intellectual. “Pompous phrases marched across the landscape in search of an idea,” was his slap-down of the Republican convention that nominated Eisenhower. “Candor and confession are good for the political soul” was his take on the occasional cloudy ethics of the Truman years.
I, of course, was ecstatic. Stevenson’s nomination was a paradise for young acolytes like me who were “Madly for Adlai.”
I spent the rest of the summer and fall campaigning for Stevenson. But reality was setting in. I became increasingly aware that Ike was unbeatable.
On Election Day I stood at a polling place in Narberth, a borough on suburban Philadelphia’s Main Line, attempting to hand out Democratic flyers. There were only a handful of takers. Many voters went out of their way to avoid me — harbingers of the electoral avalanche to come. The evening news confirmed the worst.
Thus, ended my political love affair that budded with such promise in the spring but died — as has many a summer romance — with the falling autumn leaves.
The affair had no future. But it remains a fond memory in these loveless times.
Longtime attorney Steve Sachs served as U.S. Attorney in Maryland from 1967 until 1970. He was elected Maryland Attorney General and served two terms in the 1980s.