'The Stevensons': portraying a family

March 24, 1996|By JOE STERNE | JOE STERNE,SUN STAFF

"The Stevensons" by Jean H. Baker. Norton. 577 pages. $30 For a generation of Americans nurtured in the sheltering presence of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai E. Stevenson's emergence in 1952 as the torchbearer of liberalism created an enthusiasm for political battle among his followers that was never to be repeated.

Harry Truman had been an acceptable transitional figure, but his humble roots and plain ways could never match the patrician aura of a Roosevelt or a Stevenson.

Yet Stevenson's reputation diminished during his lifetime and it has not been restored in the three decades since his death. It is a decline paralleled by the denigration of the very word -- liberal -- until today the term is avoided by an incumbent Democratic president and is just about the worst thing one Republican can say about another.

Just why this phenomenon has occurred is illuminated in Goucher College historian Jean Baker's splendid family history.

Her book reaches beyond the Adlai Stevenson who twice ran for and twice lost the presidency in 1952 and 1956 to a clan whose family name was carried from Scotland to Ireland to Pennsylvania to North Carolina to Kentucky to Illinois over the past two and a half centuries.

In its rise to prominence and migration from farm to town to city, the family produced a vice president (Adlai I), a governor and presidential candidate (Adlai II) and a U.S. senator (Adlai III).

The liberalism associated with Adlai II, the family icon and centerpiece of Professor Baker's work, was elitist, establishmentarian and shot through with a snobbery that separated it from the mass of the American people.

Clark Clifford, Harry Truman's loyal friend, is quoted as saying that Stevenson enjoyed "the chase and the leisurely self-indulgence and self-satisfied attitude that came as others told him what a fine president he would make."

Under the cool scrutiny of Professor Baker, Stevenson emerges as anything but. The son of a feckless father and a suffocating mother, both of whom were lifetime hypochondriacs, he was plagued by a sense of inadequacy and ambiguity that would have made his presidency a Cold War disaster. That much was covered over by the wit, eloquence, candor and self-deprecation that made Adlai Stevenson so appealing a figure cannot erase this conclusion.

John F. Kennedy is quoted: "Stevenson would not be happy as president. He thinks if you talk long enough you get a soft option and there are very few soft options as president."

His grandfather, Adlai I, was a sort of "Wintergreen for President" figure who could run as comfortably on the ticket of a conservative Grover Cleveland as with the hyper-populist, William Jennings Bryan. A great story-teller, a very likable man ever in pursuit of public service, the vice president had a sunny simplicity that contrasted to troubled uncertainties of his grandson and the frosty aloofness of his great-grandson, Adlai III, for ten years a frustrated U.S. senator.

Professor Baker combines economic, social, intellectual, political and psychological history into a vivid portrait of generations of remarkable human beings. It is a great American story.

Joe Sterne has worked at The Sun since 1953. He has been editorial page editor since 1972. Before that he worked as a local reporter, a foreign correspondent, in London, Bonn and Africa, and he worked in the Washington Bureau from 1960-1969.

Pub date 3/24/96

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