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.”

What Is My Work, You Ask?

What Is My Work, You Ask?


1962. My work is to stop laughing like a nervous little girl and start smiling like an unflappable young lady in the coffee shop on the Asbury Park boardwalk. To turn away from the seagulls fighting over dead fish on the beach and write “pancakes” and “bacon” on my notepad. To pay attention to the old telling the story of the 1934 wreck of the cruise ship SS Morro Castle on the beach. To save money for tickets to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Asbury Park Convention Hall.

1967. My work is to read Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care and apply its 51hjigsfuol-_sx309_bo1204203200_commandments to week-old smiles, cries in the night, a nine-month old sprinter and a child who eats only chicken. My work is to stand my ground in the whirlwind advice from mothers, aunts and grandmothers. To learn to ride a baby on the back of my bicycle. To animate words as I point to clouds, trees and cars as if I’ve never seen these things before in my life.

1976. My work is to bypass the door to the secluded basement with its graveyard of empty vodka bottles. To surrender to my new single-motherness. To trust my untrustworthy father and move from a sandy Jersey Shore cottage to a downtown Chicago highrise. My work is to know this is the best plan for a nine-year-old boy’s future happiness.

1982. My work is to dress up in business clothes, act smarter than I am, eavesdrop on everyone’s conversations in a boiler room full of political operatives, ask stupid questions and digest enough information to schedule Nancy Stevenson in places that help win votes for her husband’s campaign for governor.

1990. My work is to be a motherless child. To lament the loss of my uterus and ovaries, and, my boyfriend. To escape to Paris and London with my twelve-year old niece. To atone for all my past sins.To feign self-confidence while running the Illinois Democratic Party.

1993. My work is to take Prozac on the way to Washington to join the management class of the Clinton Administration. To imagine I have power and to hide humiliation when I’m exposed. My work is to honor the ruling class. To recognize they are human. To protect myself from evil-doers and self-promoters. My work is to mourn the loss of naiveté.

2006. My work is to shield myself and others from Cook County Government officials who believe if you are happy at your job you’re not working hard enough. To cherish those I lead for what they are today and not for what they will be tomorrow. To protect them from those who refuse to know their names.

2017. My work is to record how far my shadow falls behind me. To tell the truth about myself and trust God with where the words go and what they do when they get there. My work is to proclaim the US Constitution guarantees me the freedom to assemble publicly and express myself openly without retribution. My work is to say I love America and when the saints go marching in, oh! how I want to be in that number.

Inspired by “An Address to My Fellow Faculty,” by A. Papatya Bucak, from