Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Adlai Stevenson

Adlai Stevenson, former governor of Illinois and twice the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States, talks to Wallace about American politics, the difficulty in persuading good people to become involved in politics, diversity, elections, and the need for the average citizen to be involved in government.

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Guest: Adlai Stevenson

WALLACE: This is Adlai Stevenson, former Governor of Illinois, twice the Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Governor Stevenson says: “Politics and Politicians are too often words of disrespect and contempt” here in the United States. In a moment we’ll find out why he says that and what he thinks should be done about it.

ANNOUNCER: The Mike Wallace Interview presented by the American Broadcasting Company in association with the Fund for the Republic brings you a special television series discussing the problems of Survival and Freedom in America.

WALLACE: Good evening, I’m Mike Wallace. American politics is the machinery that makes our democracy work. We can boast of city, state and federal governments all elected by the people and responsible to them. At least it works that way in theory. Tonight we’ll try to find out how it works in practice. How much power the voter really has. And how much we as citizens are in the grip of political and social forces over which we have not enough control. Our guest, one of the major political figures of our day. Adlai Stevenson.

WALLACE: Governor Stevenson, first let me quote to you what some social critics are saying about our country. For instance, sociologist C. Wright Mills writes: “Our economy has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations… our political order has become a centralized executive establishment… the military order, once a slim establishment, has become the largest and most expensive feature of our government.” And these groups do seem to control our fate as a nation. Therefore, what real control does the individual citizen have over his own fate?

STEVENSON: Well let me say that I’ve made a speech once upon a time that you remind me of, in which I said that I thought if there were two things that I feared most about our country, the first, of course, would be war, and I said I thought the second might be bigness. Bigness not only in the corporations, but it is in government and it is in labor. It is mostly a manifestation , however, of the basic apprehension, I guess, that we all have, which is conformity, which is an iron rigidity, that more and more we hare emerging as more and more alike. We eat the same things, we read the same magazines, and the same newspapers. We travel in the same sort of transportation. We wear the same clothes and sooner or later sometimes many of us even begin to think alike.

WALLACE: And what’s to be done about it?

STEVENSON: This would be a very sad thing, indeed, if we lost the precious diversity from which most ideas, most enterprise, most vitality spring. We have also naturally, as progress has increased, lost control over our economic destiny. This was inevitable. Even the farmers can no longer control either their prices or he has somebody else who controls how much he has to pay for gasoline for his tractor, for the expenses of maintaining his equipment, for the prices he gets for his commodities. The man on the work bench has little control over his wages. They are fixed by the union management negotiations and so on. Little by little we have lost control of our economic destiny as individuals and we are even losing the regional differences that have been interesting in this country between the East and West and various sections of our country. We are beginning to look more alike, talk more alike, even accents are, I think, disappearing. But what does this mean? I don’t know Mr. Wallace, whether it means we’re all going to be identical as time goes on and we are all going to work, for either big government or big business or big labor. Personally, I don’t think so. I still have great hope. I think that now we are examining again our education. We’re putting more emphasis on the quality of individual excellence rather than merely adjustment to the group. Really getting along. I think we must. I think this is extremely important to advance the socially good student, to have recognition, and respect for excellence, for the fellow who stands out rather than for merely conformity. Likewise I think that we’ve had something that has contributed to this domination that we hear so much about… money, press, government. When they all fall into more or less the same hands, you have a situation which has not been common in our country. But there have been many intervals when we have had the … not … when we haven’t conformed … we’ve collided. Take the case of the Roosevelt administration. This was a collision between government and big business in conflict, in contrast to what Mr. Mills says… with the emergency of the social revolution of the 30’s.

WALLACE: But we needed a catastrophe, Governor Stevenson, in order to bring about…

STEVENSON: You mean the depression?


STEVENSON: Perhaps that’s so but the fact is that it did come about.

WALLACE: Well, the point is that you underline again what a serious problem we are facing in the sameness in which we seem to be becoming more and more enmeshed, but is it possible to stop this trend toward sameness, toward becoming enmeshed in big government, big labor, big business, big military?

STEVENSON: I haven’t lost hope by any means, that we’re all just cogs … and that we’re all enmeshed in this bigness. I think with the expansion of power, with new inventions, with new technology, with the organizations and new businesses emerging … one of the most serious things to me in recent years has been the disappearance of the small businessman who is being crushed in there between the great millstones… the elimination of individual entrepreneurs … the chain store, the supermarket … all of these have replaced the little druggist and the little grocery store and the private enterprise but I think that it’s not without hope. As a lawyer I am conscious of the fact that we have the Sherman Act to resist trust, as we call it, in excessive monopolization of industry, restraints on trade … and with more technological developments, with more inventions, with more electric power… and the way the city is spreading into the country… we are going to have more and more little businesses, I think, which may put this somewhat into balance. I certainly hope so.

WALLACE: Let’s talk for awhile about the individual citizen in relationship to big government. We are told all the time that we should be active, more active, politically. We should be interested in a party. One hundred years ago, or so, a man could attend a town hall meeting with about two hundred other men. And perhaps make himself felt… has opinion was felt … but today in the big cities, the average citizen, it seems, feels rather powerless when he tries to work for a tremendous political party. He feels that the professional party workers, in a sense, own the party and therefore he becomes an insignificant cog. What’s he to do about that, Governor Stevenson?

STEVENSON: I must say that I can understand the feeling that the average man frequently has. If he takes any interest in politics at all, that he’s a powerless cog. I don’t’ believe he is. I think there’s a very healthy movement going on in this country. I have personally witnessed it in many places, more and more young people trying to get into politics. They come to me – not an occasional one – they have come to me by the scores – over the last several years: “How do you get into politics?”- “Is it worthwhile?” – “Is it worth paying the price for it?” I know that clubs are starting .. political clubs … old ones are being rehabilitated. I know that discussion groups are becoming more and more common about public affairs. Young people are trying to participate in government, to run for public office. They are willing to start in at the bottom as precinct captains and so on. I think there’s quite a movement of increased participation going on this country. I wish there were even more.

WALLACE: Well, that brings us to this point. There are about 40% of our people in this country who do not register to vote, ever. 60% don’t vote for Congressmen in non-presidential elections. We’ve had recent Senatorial elections in which less than 30% of the population voted. Why?

STEVENSON: It is very sad and I think it is one of the major reflections of our concern for democracy which our ancestors have spilled their blood to win and to preserve for us but it is a curious thing that the older a country gets the more secure it has been… the less people participate. If you recall, Mr. Wallace, after the French had been occupied by the enemy during the past war, in the first public election, the participation was on the order of 94%, I think it was, maybe 93. People when they have been imperiled, people who have known freedom and liberty and self-government and have lost it, are much more concerned with it. This is why we often find the immigrant who comes to this country much more conscientious in the discharge of his duties as a citizen, his responsibility to vote, and so on, than we do…. People who have lived here for generations. I think we have taken too much for granted and I hope very much that programs like this and programs like those that the Fund for the Republic in doing can invite attention to the fundamentals of democratic continuity.

WALLACE: You once wrote, Governor Stevenson, you said “It seems to me that politics and politician are so often epithets, word of disrespect and contempt.” Why are they? Why do as many Americans as do have low regard for politicians.

STEVENSON: I suppose in some respects it is justified. I deplore it but it’s well to remember that behind every corrupt politician is someone who corrupted him. It is well to remember that the weak and the ignorant are often people who have become that way because they want to stay in politics as a career because they have nowhere else to go. And often because stronger people, better people, better-educated people, people of higher ethical purpose, don’t care to go into it. I remember very well, I have said time and again, when I was in Italy during the war one time, I read a public opinion poll in this country that said “All right for your sons to come and fight and bleed and die to preserve this country “but that seven out ten parents didn’t want a child of theirs to go into public life or public office. This is what I mean.

WALLACE: What was that you said? A fair number of people go into politics because they are unemployed and ho place else to go?

STEVENSON: No, I said that lots of people who go into politic … after they have been in it for awhile find that to stay in politics they have to make all sorts of compromises to satisfy their supporters and that it becomes awfully important for them to keep their jobs because they have nowhere else to go.

WALLACE: Oh, I see.

STEVENSON: They have lost their law practice, they have given up their profession, whatever it was… they have made the sacrifice of changing their lives to go into politics and public office. I think the only answer to that is that you have fewer elected people. You have more people at the executive and administrative level who don’t have to risk the hazards of public service and public office because… we have often comment on it… the saddest thing in the world is what happens to the politician in this most cruel and hazardous of businesses, who is ultimately rejected. Now I don’t’ think even all political organizations, however, are by any means bad. They want to win offices, they know that good candidates attract support and attention and respect. Let me just read you something, because I knew you were going to ask me this question. You mentioned a speech of mine. Here’s another in which I quoted from an old philosopher, long ago. He said: “Politics is the most hazardous of all professions. There is not another in which a man can hope to do so much good to his fellow creatures, neither is there any way in which he may do so much widespread harm, nor is there another in which a positive and strict veracity is so difficult. But danger is the inseparable companion of honor. With the noblest career any man can choose.” Now it seems to me lamentable that politics and politicians instead of becoming words of respect, have become words of disrespect so frequently in a government by the consent of the governed. But that’s the fact and I think it’s often our own fault. It’s not due to the genus “pol” himself. It is due to the people, who will get just about what they ask for. “Your public servants serve you right,” somebody once said.

WALLACE: Tell me this, do you still feel that politics is the most noble enterprise that a man can get involved in, Governor Stevenson?

STEVENSON: In spite of my misfortunes, I still would like to see more better people who are willing to pay the sacrifice, who are willing to take the chance, willing to be repudiated, willing to risk ingratitude and abuse for service to their fellow man.

WALLACE: Governor, I think that many Americans may have the idea that a political candidate is chosen not because the people at large want him but rather that he has been selected… has the backing of other influential and powerful men, other politicians, labor leaders, businessmen, the political boss. From what you know of politics, is that a fiction? Does it happen occasionally or does it happen more often than not?

STEVENSON: Well obviously people are selected for advancement in politics by organizations…. In places where there are political organizations and they are frequently too narrow, frequently too narrow, frequently dominated by a handful but this isn’t always the case by any means. Most people run in free and open contests. I might say, however, and then they are selected by their peers … the people. But there are some limitations on primaries too. I think the Presidential primary, if you will let me digress, is almost a useless institution. I am not by any means persuaded that the Presidential primary is a good thing to have.


STEVENSON: For a variety of reasons. In the first place, a man who aspires to the Presidency… who it presently engaged in an important task… let’s say he is a Governor of a great state. Or a United States Senator… frequently it is a politician in public office as things work out in our country, rather than a private citizen. If he’s conscientious about his job, he hasn’t got time to run in a primary. Could I, as Governor of Illinois, have come out and spent hours and days and weeks and months away from my desk, an enormous executive responsibility like that. I don’t think you can, not consistent with the responsibility to the people that elected you. That’s one thing. You literally can’t afford the time. Another thing is that the Presidential primaries evoke relatively few people…. Relatively few people vote in a Presidential primary. Likewise the states have no uniformity about the rules… about what the Presidential primary means…. About how it binds delegates to a convention and finally, it also is terribly expensive, it’s exhausting physically, you burn up yourself…you burn up your ammunition… you burn up your means and I think that it’s a very very questionable method of selecting Presidential candidate and actually it never does. All it does is destroy some of the candidates.

WALLACE: I think this is coming directly to the issue. Because what we are trying to find out is how can the individual citizen make his will felt, and it would seem to me that what you are suggesting is another means of taking away participation by the individual citizen in the choice of his representatives. How, if we do not have a Presidential primary of some kind, can the various people from the various states make their will felt in the choice of the man who will represent them in their particular political party?

STEVENSON: By getting into the a political party and working in it. By having a part, something to say about the choice of delegates, and they are elected, to the Democratic or the Republican national conventions. They are elected by the people in their party elections. They can get into the party. They can work from within or they can take an active part in organizations that are interested in politics. I think much of the trouble here, Mr. Wallace, is that we have been indifferent to the responsibility of a democracy and it is the hardest, most difficult, most expensive and perhaps the most inefficient political system there is but it is the only free one, totally free one. If we want it as badly as I think we do, we are going to have to pay a heavier and heavier price for it and the most important privet ha we can pay for it is participation in it, not taking it for granted every four years, not being willing to have, if you please, slot machines in the club but forbid them in the corner saloon, not be willing to take only advantage of the privileges of life in this country for ourselves and deny them to others but recognize that it treats us all alike and that we will get out of it exactly what we put into it. It is like a pump and what is pumped up is a pretty fair sample f what we are. So I think it is our own fault for the most part. I think as I said you public servants serve you right.

WALLACE: Let’s go now if we may to how a politician is sometimes elected, Governor Stevenson. Aldous Huxley has written a series of articles called “Tyranny Over the Mind,” which have been appearing in the Long Island newspaper, Newsday.

STEVENSON: Newsday, yes, I think they are an excellent series. I had the good fortune to read them. I think it was very enterprising of Newsday to run them.

WALLACE: He wrote: “All that is needed,” – talking about electing a candidate – “is money and a candidate can be coached to look sincere. Political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance. The political candidate is merchandised as though he were a deodorant.” What do you think of that suggestion by Mr. Huxley?

STEVENSON: I am afraid there is some truth to this. That we have become, in this country, very conditioned to advertising, to advertising techniques of appeal to wants, and appeal to fears, and simplicity and repetition. The use of slogans has become commonplace in public life. It always was, more or less, but by constant repetition, by the use of these methods of merchandising, perhaps it’s had more effect than it should. You remember “Time for a Change,” at least I remember it, in 1952 and “Peace and Prosperity” in 1956 and in the Russian revolution it used to be “Bread and Land”, appealing to everything that the people wanted. If they were proletariats in the city they wanted bread, if they were peasants in the country, they wanted land. This kind of method of trying to capsule public issues that are intricate and involved is, I think, one of the hazards that we have to confront and be able to see through and I think it’s one of the things that merchandising methods and tactics in politics have given us and I am sorry about it. Campaigns should be to educate … to inform. The basic condition of classical, successful democracy is an informed electorate. We have to be able to make choices. This is what is meant by self-government. We have to know what the choices are and we have to understand the alternatives that are before us. How can you do that unless you are willing to listen to the issues, unless they are actively presented by the candidates, unless they are elaborated and honestly presented by the press. Now, insofar as advertising does this, well and good, insofar as it tends to obscure the issues and create merely emotional responses, then I think it does us an injustice and I think there’s been too much of that.

WALLACE: Looking at the clock, Governor Stevenson, I see that we have only about two or three minutes left.

STEVENSON: I’m afraid I have been much too prolix.

WALLACE: By no means. There is one thing I would like to come to now… Senator Neuberger of Oregon has claimed that it requires a campaign wallet of at least one million dollars to be elected to the Senate today from any big industrial state. Presidential campaigns have been estimated to cost as high as seventy-five million with a good deal of it coming in the form of small fortunes donated y wealthy and influential men.

STEVENSON: I wish I had seen more of that.

WALLACE: Do you think that that is a healthy situation, for large sums to come from…

STEVENSON: No, I do not. I have been a great believer in the idea of small contributions from many people. This is part of participation… lots of people making little contributions gives them a wider stake in our parties and makes the candidates less vulnerable and also less beholden to a few.

WALLACE: How can we better finance our campaigns? I believe the American Heritage Foundation is suggesting that each family give a dollar to the party of his choice. Does that sound sensible?

STEVENSON: Yes, it does, and it’s being embraced at last, I am happy to say…. We urged it in 1956 … now it’s being embraced by both parties.

WALLACE: Final series of questions. I don’t know whether we’ll have time to do all that we would like to on it. It’s been suggested that men like Jefferson, Adams, Madison, some of our first leaders were an elite elected by and elite… an elite of property owners, highly educated, intelligent, aware people but that today anybody can vote regardless of his capacities and so we see politics like water, seeking the lowest level, the level of the mass, rather than the level of the elite What do you think of that claim?

STEVENSON: I think this was true at one time when they had property qualifications and relatively few people were entitled to vote. I think however that there are much better reasons for it and that was the enthusiasm, the spirit, the heart, the risk of our fortunes and our honor and everything that went into the early days of our republic. If we were animated by that spirit more I don’t believe we’d be too much concerned with this problem, but the price of popular choice is popular choice. By all of the people. We simply have to develop better methods of communication with the people because we know that there is no better system than ultimate reliance on the discriminating choice of the people but they have to be informed. The first responsibility is information, is truth… we have to serve the truth as candidates for public office and not mislead, misguide, misdirect the people merely to provoke emotional responses and win votes that way. This is why I feel very strongly that it doesn’t do any good to go back and talk about the elite electing the elite. We don’t have that. We have a basic, fundamental democracy and what we have to do it make it work.

WALLACE: But the men that I talk about – Jefferson, Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Madison, Monroe, -- these were men of political stature and intellectual stature. Do you feel that our leaders, let’s say just in this century alone, measure up intellectually, measure up as leaders?

STEVENSON: Of course, that was the richest flowering politically in all history that you are speaking about. It was the birth of revolution and a great new nation and a new concept of freedom on earth but we do have, I remind you have had Cleveland, I remind you we have had Woodrow Wilson, we have had Theodore Roosevelt, we have had Franklin Roosevelt… we have had great leaders in contemporary times. Not always. We don’t always elect the best. For some of the reasons I have discussed here this morning. I think I ought to know something about that. At all events, we have done extremely well and I think if we serve the truth a little bit better… if we demand of our candidates that they address themselves to the real issues and discuss the alternatives before the people honestly and fairly and not mislead them, then I think we are going to get those sort of people to re-emerge and I am sure they are here among us.

WALLACE: Governor Stevenson, I thank you for taking a half hour out of your busy schedule to come and speak with us.

WALLACE: An old political axiom says, “People get the kind of government they deserve.” Only we can make sure that government fulfills its proper role in a democratic society. And if our government … if our political system fails to serve us properly, the blame in the long run, rests on us.

WALLACE: Next week we go after the story of television’s responsibilities I a free society. Our guest, you see him behind me, is on of the great creative minds in television. He’s Sylvester Pat Weaver former president of the National Broadcasting Company and creator of such programs as Wide Wide World, Today and Tonight, and the TV spectaculars. If you’re curious to know what kind of men, what kind of business policies, what kind of social ethics determine what you see on you TV screen, and if you want to know why Pat Weaver charges that television is failing to honor its responsibilities in a free society, we’ll go after those stories next week. And two weeks from tonight our guest will be U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge, who’ll talk about the Soviet Russian threat to our free society. Till next week then, Mike Wallace, good night.