Adali III went into politics early but, despite his best efforts, didn’t stay late.
Time was when Adlai Stevenson III was a big man politically in the state of Illinois. But his death last week at age 90 in Chicago passed without great effect. His time had come and gone.
But what a time it was. The son of two-time presidential candidate and former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson II, Adlai III made a mark in his own right. He was a state legislator, a state treasurer, a two-term U.S. senator, a dark-horse presidential candidate in 1976 and 1980 and, finally, a candidate for governor who came within an eyelash of defeating Republican incumbent Jim Thompson in 1982.
Stevenson lost that gubernatorial race to Thompson by 5,074 votes. The election might have turned out different if the Illinois Supreme Court had sanctioned the recount Stevenson so desperately sought.
Stevenson ran against Thompson, who died in 2020, four years later, but his second run was ruined when disciples of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche secured two spots on the Democratic Party’s primary ballot, one as Stevenson’s lieutenant-governor running mate.
That was the point when Adlai III, who was born into a political life that he relished, threw in the towel and officially became a permanent private citizen.
However one views Stevenson — too liberal or not liberal enough — he represented the best of what Illinois’ mostly marginal political establishment has to offer voters.
He once remarked that he had trained all his life to be the governor of Illinois. It’s not clear what that means, but his educational and personal background were stellar, and his politics were sincere.
Although Stevenson spent 10 years in the U.S. Senate, winning a special election in 1970 after the death of Republican U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, he was not especially happy in that 100-member club.
Succeeded by Democrat Alan Dixon, Stevenson left the Senate of his own volition in 1981 with the intent of succeeding Thompson in the governor’s office two years later.
As Stevenson himself acknowledged, he was the last politico in the Stevenson political dynasty.
His great-grandfather was the 23rd vice president of the United States. His father, of course, is venerated as a former governor and presidential candidate. But Adlai III represented the end of the line because his children had no interest in politics.
Stevenson was reputed to be an intellectual and had the image of a fuddy duddy. Reporters who covered his gubernatorial campaign joked that he had “negative charisma.”
He highlighted, perhaps by accident, that image when he complained after a 1982 debate with Thompson that the Republican had suggested he was a “wimp.”
“He is saying, ‘Me tough guy,’ as if to imply that I’m some kind of wimp,” Stevenson said.
The characterizations were off. Stevenson was the former U.S. Marine Corps officer while “Big Jim” was a collector of antiques.
Whatever else he was, Stevenson was a quintessential political heavyweight, partly because of his last name and partly because he was a serious person who sought public office for the best of reasons.