The Veterans

The Veterans

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

And Still, He Persisted: Remembering Adlai (1930-2021)

<strong>And Still, He Persisted: Remembering Adlai (1930-2021)</strong>

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.

thAdlai 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.”

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

In 1982 newspaperman Paul Galloway made arrangements for me to volunteer on the Adlai Stevenson for governor campaign. Paul wrote features for the Chicago Sun Times and knew the campaign press secretary. It’s best to have a reference when volunteering on a campaign or you’ll get stuck answering phones or standing on a street corner passing out brochures. I was entrusted with driving Nancy Stevenson around to her scheduled events. She is one helluva quick-witted woman. I’ve never known any two people as funny as Paul Galloway and Nancy Stevenson. At the end of every day, I’d have hilarious conversations with Paul recapping the day’s events. He’d brief me on the serious issues of the campaign that I had missed while I was out with Nancy. Once in a while he’d relay bits of gossip about Adlai’s opponent, Jim Thompson, that he’d overheard in the newsroom—confidentially, of course, but I told Nancy everything.

Paul scheduled time with Nancy on the campaign trail because he was writing an article on the candidates’ wives. At the end of that day, as we dropped Nancy off, we doubled over out of the car barely able to recover from the previous sidesplitting eight hours. When the article appeared a few days later, a campaign staffer asked if we had given Paul an aphrodisiac because he wrote more of a love letter to Nancy than a journalistic objective feature story.

When the 2019 Polar Vortex was on its way to Chicago at the end of January, I decided to spend  the forced hibernation writing about my time in the ’82 Stevenson campaign. But my first draft notes were blank. I could remember very little about it. In writing memoir, when I sit down with a particular theme in mind, memories rise up. Other memoirists say the same thing; it’s why we call it bibliotherapy. Incidents hidden somewhere in the hippocampus come forward.

Not this time. No specifics of what-I-thought-were-memorable days with Nancy Stevenson and Paul Galloway. It’s as if Paul took the stories with him when he died ten years ago. Like they are his to tell, not mine. This has made me profoundly sad, not only at the lost memories, but at the loss of Paul.

And so the day before the Polar Vortex I figured out how to tee up the full 18 hours of  The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel on Amazon Prime. I threw half-a-loaf of stale bread cubes onto my 4’x10’  third floor balcony to nourish the house sparrows, finches and occasional chickadees that frequent my suet feeder. Then I shuttered myself in and Dapped all the fullsizeoutput_4cb7little crevices around the balcony door that were spritzing air into my not-so-insulated living room. That was the extent of my preparation for the coldest two days ever recorded in Chicago.

Day One: -23 °. I awoke to a thick film of silver ice covering all my windows. There were fractal peek-a-boos to the outside world near the balcony door handle and around my hardy geraniums on the indoor windowsills. The ice curtain shut me out of the humanity moving around behind the windows across the street, buses and cars on Lake Shore Drive and any fool pedestrian walking about in the feels-like-minus-40 degrees. The windows emitted a dazzling cold so I grabbed some goose down, hunkered down far away from the frozen glaze with Henry the dog and cuddled the TV remote.

My binge-watching was interrupted by a thrashing whomp, whomp whomp, on my balcony. Then another. And another. Then two more. I rose to inch toward a clearing in the frosty glass. A murder of crows had come to visit. 

The American Black Crow measures 20 inches long with a 3-foot wide iridescent wing span. The crow and its cousin, the raven,  show up in every ancient mythology as bad omens of storms, disease or death. Native American tribes believed the crow had the power to talk and was a stealer of souls. Recent research suggests their cognitive abilities are as sophisticated as chimpanzees. If they look you in the eye, they will remember you, follow you down the street and caw to you when they’re hungry, like wild pets.

As the arctic blast began serrating its way from the North Pole down toward the Lower Forty-Eight, the goal of every bird in the Midwest was to gorge themselves, find a safe 51281615_10218858609480733_4258526774826106880_nplace and stay still to conserve the calories heating their bodies. The weather should have kept the crows out of sight.

Instead, it brought them to me.

Day Two: -21°. The ice wall on one of my windows melted enough for a small lookout. I prayed to the crows, “Come back. Please come back.” They first landed mid-morning. A mighty set of black wings fluttered a plumped-up body onto the balcony railing and the rest followed, plucking for leftovers. They flew off and came back. Again. And again. And again. I remained still throughout, trying to lock eyes with the leader. Was this a bad omen? Come to steal more memories?

In the late afternoon the temperature rose to minus-2 degrees. I strapped Henry into his dreaded boots, packed myself in layers of cold weather gear and set out. We clipped along the crackling tree-lined sidewalk.  A crow cawed overhead. Again. And again. And again.