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Adlai Stevenson's Race for Illinois Governor Turns into a Laugher but Not the Sort He Intended

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The candidate had his busted left foot in a cast, and his campaign was limping along as if in sympathy. The plane to St. Louis was half an hour late, but Adlai Ewing Stevenson III, a man battling a truly antic streak of bad luck in his race for the governorship of Illinois, remained unruffled. At last the big jet began roaring down the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Suddenly the pilot hit the brakes. Stevenson opened wide his steel-gray eyes and exclaimed quietly, “Oh my God.” The plane made a safe stop, and while airline mechanics spent the next 2½ hours replacing the aircraft’s computer, the candidate reflected on his recent troubles. “We are snakebit, it’s true,” he said. “You should never put me on a plane if you want to go anywhere.”

So it seems. Adlai Stevenson’s campaign for governor has taken on the hapless, slapstick quality of a Peter Sellers movie, with the Illinois newspapers alternately chortling and groaning at each new calamity. One paper has taken to calling him “Sadly Adlai.” Stevenson has retained a sense of humor, but the joke threatens to wear thin. Media consultant David Axelrod told one reporter: “To say it’s been anything but a nightmare up to this point would be an understatement.”

The jinx struck early—when Stevenson announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination with the unfortunate phrase, “I have to say the sap is rising.” Then, just as he was celebrating his primary victory came a truly serious misfortune. He lost his party. Two followers of right-wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche had also won places on the Democratic ticket, and rather than run with candidates whose views he abhorred, Stevenson felt honor-bound to renounce his nomination. No sooner had he announced formation of the Illinois Solidarity Party than an obscure group stepped forward to say they already owned a similar name.

Stevenson will appear on the ballot in November and, barring supernatural forces, will hold on to the Solidarity Party title. But in this race, supernatural forces cannot be ruled out. Consider the record:

•In April, the candidate toppled from a horse and hurt his back. He lost 10 days of campaigning recuperating on the farm he shares with wife Nancy, 52. (Their four children are grown.)

•When he felt a little better, he gave a reporter an animated seminar on turkey hunting. “You get up at 4 in the morning, go out so you’re in position at daybreak and wait for the gobblers to start gobbling. And then you cluck-cluck, to try to woo them. I pretend I am a female turkey.”

•Not long after the laughter subsided, he was asked by the United Auto Workers if he owned a Japanese-made truck. Stevenson had to admit that, yes, among his five vehicles was a Toyota—it cost less than American pickups, he explained. He had not expected the union’s endorsement and did not get it.

•Shortly after that, Stevenson experienced swelling and persistent pain in his left foot. Doctors diagnosed a fracture and encased the leg in a toe-to-knee cast.

Stevenson, 55, is no stranger to politics; it just seems that way sometimes. He is the great-grandson of the first Adlai Stevenson, who was Vice-President under Grover Cleveland; his late father was the distinguished Illinois Governor twice nominated as the Democratic candidate for President. Adlai Stevenson III had served two terms in the U.S. Senate when in 1982 he challenged incumbent Gov. James R. Thompson and lost by only 5,000 votes.

In the most recent poll, Stevenson lags behind Thompson by 20 percent—something of a victory under the circumstances—and he and his team think his chances of winning are still good. But in searching for a spin on recent events that justifies such optimism, media adviser Axelrod’s choice of simile was curious: “He’s like one of those bathtub toys that you push down and it keeps coming right back up again.” Oof.