At a memorial service in downtown Chicago on Veterans Day eve, campaign veteran David Axelrod eulogized Adlai Stevenson III. In 1986 Adlai had reluctantly enlisted Axelrod as a consultant to steer the ship of his campaign for Illinois governor. Adlai had nothing against Axelrod. He just didn’t understand why he needed a consultant to do what he thought the campaign staff should do. Axelrod recounted how Adlai fought, like the Marine he had once been, for higher principles—“utterly immune to pressures of organized money, politicians and public opinion”.
He reminded us of how the press derided Adlai as “professorial” and out of touch with voters. But Nancy Stevenson could light any room with grace and warmth, insulating her husband from criticisms of being cold and aloof. They both always appreciated the sacrifices of campaign staffers. On that night, at a party to mark her husband’s death, she offered us one final salute from her and her “Ad”.
Nancy was the last to speak. With a cavalcade of children and grandchildren surrounding her, she chronicled each of the Stevenson campaigns. Treasurer. Senator. Governor. I looked around the room full of campaign veterans and wondered how she deployed so many of us so fast.
Small units clustered together after the formalities, telling favorite Adlai yarns, as if he was the childhood uncle. There’s a familial coziness in campaign storytelling. I gravitated toward the governor-campaign crew, some of the funniest people I’ve ever known.There’s no doubt we all respected him for the valor conveyed by Axelrod. But as a candidate, Adlai gave us a lot of stand-up comedy material.
In 1985 the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl. At a campaign event, an enthusiastic supporter yelled out, “Hey Adlai, you’re the Mike Ditka of politics!”
“Who’s Mike Ditka?” Adlai asked a campaign staffer in the car afterwards. The staffer explained that the ’85 Chicago Bears was being touted as the greatest NFL team of all time. Adlai said, “Oh, I thought NFL stood for some new terrorist group.”
In the early days of the 1986 campaign, I was the driver waiting for Adlai and the press secretary outside the Chicago Tribune. When the two got in the car, we headed down the Dan Ryan to a campaign event on the far south side. The press secretary and I were looking forward to the drive time to review the long-term schedule with Adlai. But Adlai, always prepared, hopped in the front seat, tuned in WFMT and pulled sheet music out of his briefcase. We were mum as he followed along to the tinny car radio ringing out Bach’s Mass in B Minor all the way to Calumet City.
Adlai once accused his opponent, incumbent Governor Jim Thompson, of implying he was “some kind of wimp.″ Thompson sounded off, “I never called Adlai a wimp”. The label stuck and at the conclusion of every one of Nancy Stevenson’s speeches after that, she smiled, winked, and affirmed, “Ad…is no wimp.”
RIP. Adlai Stevenson III. October 10, 1930 – September 6, 2021