February 19, 1979 12:00 PM

Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III of Illinois has put himself on a collision course with the Carter White House—and at a watershed in his own political career—by denouncing the President as “embarrassingly weak” and incapable of halting the nation’s decline. A fourth-generation Democrat whose great-grandfather was Vice-President under Grover Cleveland and whose father was a two-time Democratic presidential nominee, Stevenson has served eight years in the Senate. Now, at 48, he is considering leaving Washington next year, either to return to his farm near Galena, Ill. or to assume the leadership of a third-party movement. He is postponing a final decision until April. Last week he talked with Clare Crawford of PEOPLE about his break with Jimmy Carter and the fears and frustrations that led him to it.

What made you speak out against President Carter?

You only have to look at the statistics to see what’s happening. We have a $30 billion trade deficit, the dollar has sunk, oil prices are going up and our authority in the world is declining. We still have not recovered from Watergate and Vietnam. I am deeply concerned. What will happen if we continue to suffer serious inflation, unemployment and economic stagnation?

Don’t you believe the President shares your concern?

I’ve laid out ideas to President Carter, but I still detect little interest in new directions and a great preoccupation with reorganization plans, sunset laws, ethics codes, zero-base budgeting—in other words, with the methods of government, as opposed to its ends. I haven’t been able to move him so far, and others haven’t. Perhaps something a little more drastic will help.

Like third-party opposition?

The Democratic party is in danger of losing its identity. The politicians of both parties are turning backward—either to the conservatism of the 1950s or to the social welfarism of the 1960s. But the country must face the future. The public is dissatisfied with the existing order of things—and rightly so. New parties have always appeared at such times, rarely to succeed at the polls but with lasting effects on the nation’s politics. It could happen again, and perhaps it should.

You have said you are frustrated with your role in the Senate. Why?

The Senate used to be the greatest forum of free people. It is no longer. The members are full-time lawmakers—answering mail, going to meetings, voting. But they rarely debate the great questions before the country. There is a continuing preoccupation with everything except the ends of government. As chairman of the Ethics Committee, for example, I’ve become the truant officer of the Senate. It’s a drain on my time. If a young lady on the Senate staff wants to accept some shrimps from somebody for her wedding reception, she asks me if it’s permissible. That’s an actual case.

Why do you think of the U.S. as a declining power?

I don’t want to sound too negative—I’m really bullish about the possibilities. But we have wandered like Gulliver into the land of Lilliput, and we’re tied down by strands of minutiae, webs of regulation. The growth industries of America are the law and accounting firms and government itself. We’re not pushing ahead the frontiers of human knowledge. And when the nation fails to respond to challenge, that’s the beginning of the end. I don’t think it’s my middle age; I think it’s the nation’s middle age.

Do you think the U.S. can regain its lost vitality?

I know that the nation will not be moved to high levels of endeavor by reorganization plans. At the same time, we have more international competition than ever before—mainly from those we defeated in World War II. The U.S. and Great Britain have the oldest economic systems in the world but the lowest productivity growth rates. Germany and Japan had to start from scratch with new economies. That suggests, I think, that our leadership has become the captive of orthodoxy, habit and very powerful interest groups—and I think the public senses that. The U.S. is asleep. It is time we woke up and gave ourselves and the world the leadership we’re capable of giving.

How, specifically?

We can compete. We can recommit ourselves to science and technology. We could create trading companies the way the Japanese do—blanket the globe with salesmen. We can sell food. World food supplies are not going to increase anything like the rate of population. But we’re not reacting to that. We’re reacting to last year’s surplus instead of next year’s shortage.

Do you think your father would have approved of the third-party option?

Yes. He felt strongly about talking sense. It wasn’t enough to win office—you had to deserve it. I believe he would feel that, if it took some action outside the two-party system to communicate with the public, then Godspeed.

Do you think President Carter can be beaten in 1980?

The race is wide open. He has little influence in Congress. His authority in the world is not large. The polls tell you something about his strength with the people.

Could you support him for re-election?

I think the Republican alternative could make me a very enthusiastic supporter of the President, who is personally a highly intelligent man of great vitality and fortitude. My interest is in getting attention for some new ideas, getting the country moving again. Whether it is me or Carter or someone else who does that is of minor importance.

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