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Adlai Stevenson, the original egghead

The last Unitarian nominated for president of the United States.
By Kimberly French
Winter 2008 11.1.08

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Although five United States presidents have identified as Unitarians—the two Adamses, Jefferson, Fillmore, and Taft—it has been more than fifty years since a Unitarian was the nominee of a major political party. The last was Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.

Stevenson loved language and was a gifted orator. A sharp wit, he could be both high-minded and self-deprecating. In one oft-quoted story, a supporter shouted, “Governor Stevenson, you have the vote of all the thinking people,” to which he replied, “That’s not enough, madam. I need a majority.” New York Herald Tribune columnist Stewart Alsop coined the term “egghead” to describe the urbane, intellectual, and balding Stevenson.

The talent among his speechwriters was breathtaking: Archibald MacLeish, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Hersey, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Even so, he personally reworked every speech, often penciling in hundreds of changes, keeping crowds waiting, even letting them disperse, until he felt prepared. His advisers joked he’d rather write than be president, according to biographer Jean Baker.

His political opponents in 1952 were vicious: Vice presidential nominee Richard Nixon, red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover smeared the Stevenson campaign as a bunch of “pinks and pansies.”

In response, Stevenson quipped, “I would make a proposition to my Republican friends . . . that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”

Stevenson enjoyed enormous popularity internationally and among the growing college-educated American middle class. Celebrities Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned for him.

Supporters adored him not just for his style but also for putting policy debate at the center of his campaign and for standing up to McCarthyism. His New America campaign foresaw programs Kennedy and Johnson were able to implement, and his calls for an end to nuclear testing became the Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Ever the Cold Warrior, he criticized the Eisenhower administration for losing half of Vietnam, and he favored a go-slow approach to civil and women’s rights, infuriating younger activists.

Between election cycles Stevenson traveled widely overseas. He had hoped to become Secretary of State in the next Democratic administration, but John F. Kennedy tapped him as United Nations ambassador, a position that suited his international experience and oratory skills.

At a high point of his career, in 1962 Stevenson famously demanded that the Soviet representative to the United Nations say whether his country was installing missiles in Cuba: “Don’t wait for the translation. Answer yes or no!” When the Soviet ambassador waffled, Stevenson produced photographs proving their existence.

Stevenson grew up Unitarian. His mother was a Republican Unitarian; his father a Democratic Presbyterian. “I wound up in his party and her church, which seemed an expedient solution to the problem,” he liked to say.

When the Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961, Stevenson wrote to the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, its first president, “Congratulations on your election as president. I know from hearsay how satisfying that can be.”

After his son survived a serious auto accident in 1955, Stevenson joined the Presbyterian church in Lake Forest, Illinois, near his home. When some Unitarians accused him of using religion for political ends, Stevenson explained that he’d often attended the church of his father when he’d lived in towns with no Unitarian church, but he always felt loyal to his church back in Bloomington, Illinois. Ministers of both denominations wrote him, assuring him dual affiliation was no problem.

Stevenson died of a heart attack in London in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and author John Steinbeck attended his memorial service at the Unitarian Church in Bloomington. Greeley delivered the eulogy, calling Stevenson “a universal citizen.”


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