Excerpted from “In That Number”. Regan Burke. Tortoise Books. 2020
Fellow campaign staffers and I met Adlai Stevenson III at Chicago’s historic downtown restaurant, The Berghoff. It was 1986, Adlai’s second run for Illinois governor. We met to brief him on his speech that night before the Illinois AFL-CIO convention. He was already seated with a martini.
The AFL-CIO endorsed Adlai four years earlier during his losing campaign against Jim Thompson. As governor, Thompson legalized collective bargaining for the state employee union, a major victory for the union and state workers. By the time Thompson’s reelection rolled around, unions had broken their traditional bond with Democrats and endorsed the Republican governor.
Adlai formed the Solidarity Party that spring because right-wing followers of Lyndon LaRouche won two spots on the Democratic ballot in the March primary. Adlai, repulsed by the LaRouchies’ conspiracy-ridden statements, refused to be on the Democratic ticket with “those neo-Nazis”. The campaign desperately needed labor union members to fan out around the state and educate confused Democratic voters on how to vote for the Solidarity Party.
On this September evening Adlai would present his labor union bona fides and make the unusual plea to the rank-and-file audience to vote for him even though their leaders had endorsed his opponent.
Adlai kept his busy daily law practice while campaigning for governor; we were accustomed to briefing him either in his office at lunchtime, at the end of the workday, or in the car on the way to his evening campaign events. Once in a while we’d meet up with him at Berghoff’s, his favorite Loop restaurant.
Adlai ordered another martini, a steak, baked potato and a salad. We ordered nothing. We had a lot of ground to cover, and food and drink would be in the way. When the second martini arrived, Adlai asked for beer with dinner.
The campaign’s fast-talking policy director, David Oskandy, laid out elements of the speech he’d written, emphasizing important transitions, including the obligatory laugh lines (which didn’t seem so funny to me). The press secretary, Bob Benjamin, presented the anticipated media questions Adlai might be facing after the speech—especially those having to do with Adlai’s recent off-the-cuff remarks where he’d mused about replacing union highway workers with unpaid prison inmates. My part, as the campaign scheduler, was to familiarize Adlai with last minute changes to the schedule, review the personalities and politicians who’d be at the event, and give him an estimate of how many Stevenson supporters (holding “Labor for Adlai” signs) would be in the audience.
Adlai listened as he ate his dinner. He ordered another beer. The three of us interrupted and contradicted each other, talked frantically fast, repeated ourselves, and got louder and louder—we acted like we were racing against the clock, although there was plenty of time before the evening’s event.
After dinner Adlai ordered a brandy, sat back in his seat, as if he’d pulled the car over to quiet squabbling children. He asked questions of each of us. And as informed as we all were in our roles, we had no answers to his questions. He proved to us, as he always did, that he had an unmatched deep intelligence, housed in a mind that absorbed information, clicked through and organized it, then rolled out high-caliber ideas sprinkled with vocabulary few understood.
He savored Irish coffee as he held forth on the history of labor unions in Illinois, and the Stevenson family’s complicated legacy with them.
The press secretary gave the signal that it was time to hit the road. Adlai stumbled to his feet and muddled through thank-yous and goodbyes. David and I locked eyes in terror.
We slumped on the table. Finally, David ordered his own martini and said, “Oh well. No one ever understands what he’s saying anyway.”