Contested convention? It worked for Adlai Stevenson in '52

  • Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson II, of the Libertyville area, suddenly became the nominee at the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

    Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson II, of the Libertyville area, suddenly became the nominee at the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Associated Press File Photo

 
 
Updated 4/10/2016 6:51 AM

Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson II wasn't a candidate for president in 1952 -- until he was the nominee.

He arrived at the Democratic convention in Chicago not having campaigned for president in the months before, wanting to continue instead as Illinois' top elected leader.

 

But Stevenson left the convention as Republican Dwight Eisenhower's long-shot opponent, having been drafted into the role by party leaders who pushed for his candidacy and elected him after multiple ballots of voting.

The political convention that nominated Stevenson, a Libertyville-area resident, was the last to require multiple ballots to choose a candidate, but some wonder if it could happen again with candidates in both parties publicly saying they're preparing for contested conventions this summer.

Experts say that would be a big change from the neatly packaged made-for-TV events of recent decades.

Adlai Stevenson II, the Illinois governor from the Libertyville area, addresses the Democratic National Convention in 1952.
Adlai Stevenson II, the Illinois governor from the Libertyville area, addresses the Democratic National Convention in 1952. - Associated Press File Photo

Not only did Stevenson emerge as the nominee in 1952, but his son, former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III of Chicago, won a few delegates to the 1976 convention that eventually supported Democrat Jimmy Carter's nomination. The same year on the Republican side was the last time that party entered the convention with no clear primary winner.

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"I have not sought the honor you have done me," the elder Stevenson said in his 1952 acceptance speech, preserved in grainy video online. "I could not seek it because I aspired to another office, which was the full measure of my ambition. And one does not treat the highest office within the gift of the people of Illinois as an alternative or as a consolation prize."

And, moments later, he delivered commentary on the job of Illinois governor with which some of the office's latest occupants would likely agree.

"The burdens of that office stagger the imagination," Stevenson said.

Harry S. Truman wags a thumb at Adlai Stevenson II at the 1952 Democratic National Convention.
Harry S. Truman wags a thumb at Adlai Stevenson II at the 1952 Democratic National Convention. - Associated Press File Photo
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Stevenson lost the November election in a landslide to Eisenhower.

His ascent to the nomination has similarities and differences to the ongoing primary elections 64 years later, when party leaders on both sides have struggled to dictate the path of the race and rampant speculation about a contested Republican convention has only increased.

Stevenson's son said his dad couldn't say no.

"Party leaders drafted him, and he couldn't refuse the nomination," Stevenson III, 85, said last week. "He was governor, and reforming state government, wanted to finish the job. And also, you know, it was a near hopeless year with Eisenhower the probable Republican candidate."

"The primaries in the old days, well into my time, were dominated by political leaders," he said.

The potential for drama at the Republican convention this summer is notable, some experts say, because it could end up more like the conventions of decades ago when delegates arrived ready to talk about who should be the nominee and not a preordained clear primary winner.

In recent years, conventions tend to be glossy "four-day infomercials" made for TV cameras in an effort to springboard the party's nominee toward the November election.

"They're scripted to unveil the nominee, the party, the vice presidential nominee," said longtime Iowa reporter David Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Stevenson III served on a commission after the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago that put less emphasis on party bosses in the nomination process. It was a nod toward giving people more control.

"We like to vote even though we don't do it," said Chris Mooney, director of the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Adlai Stevenson III with his son, Warwick, at the ancestral home of the Adlai Stevenson family in Libertyville.
Adlai Stevenson III with his son, Warwick, at the ancestral home of the Adlai Stevenson family in Libertyville. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer September 2009

Stevenson III says one of the reasons intrigue surrounds a possible open Republican convention is that people haven't seen one in so long, being used to the made-for-TV events.

His father was nominated again in 1956 on the first ballot, but he went on to lose to Eisenhower again in November.

Now, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has tried to fight off speculation he could be nominated even though he hasn't run in the primaries.

"It sounds more like an old-fashioned convention." Stevenson III said. "We're not accustomed to old-fashioned conventions."

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