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Tracing Political Change Through an Illinois Family

The Stevensons:

A Biography of an American Family

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By Jean Baker

W.W. Norton

577 pp., $30

THE name Stevenson may conjure images of an American political dynasty. But as Jean Baker reveals in her absorbing yet often-melancholy, "The Stevensons: A Biography of an American Family," the family's commitment to politics and each other was neither complete nor completely successful.

All three officeholding Stevensons held the name Adlai Ewing Stevenson. Born in Illinois in 1835, the first Adlai Stevenson served two terms in Congress and one term as vice president (under Grover Cleveland). Stevenson lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896 to the fiery populist orator William Jennings Bryan and never won another election.

Adlai I's grandson, Adlai II, is by far the best known of the Stevensons, and his story frames Baker's book. Born in 1900, Adlai II alternated between a Chicago law practice and federal government positions before being elected governor of Illinois in 1948. His reputation as a reformer of state government and an eloquent commentator on world affairs gained him the Democratic nomination for president in 1952. After losing to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Stevenson served as US ambassador to the United Nations from 1961 until his death in 1965.

One of Adlai II's sons, Adlai Ewing Stevenson III, carried on the family's political tradition. In 1964, on the strength of his famous name, the 34-year-old Stevenson won a seat in the Illinois legislature. (When Adlai III asked Democratic boss Richard Daley for campaign advice, Daley simply told him not to change his name.) He later served a decade in the US Senate before leaving it in 1981, complaining about the influence of interest groups. Defeated in races for governor in 1982 and 1986, Stevenson retired from politics.

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What then, is the Stevenson legacy? As Baker notes, the Stevensons were "more often losers than winners" and, "unlike the Adams and Kennedy families of Massachusetts, ... have no single running theme in their chronicles - no descent from glory or ascent to the presidency." Baker has tried to impose a theme by noting the ways in which the family's history has paralleled that of the nation.

One similarity concerns the growing strains within families. Adlai II's parents separated after only two years of marriage. His mother Helen became and remained smotheringly attentive toward her children, even renting an apartment near the Princeton University dormitory of her "angel boy" Adlai II. Adlai II's marriage to Ellen Borden ended in divorce in 1949, and as their son Adlai III recalled, "We were not a close family."

Another parallel is the waning influence of political parties. Adlai I, active at a time when parties ruled American politics, was a stalwart Democrat. Adlai II combined partisan attacks with repeated appeals to high ideal rather than party interests. Adlai III clashed with prominent Democrats and even threatened to start a third party.

The most striking theme among the Stevensons, however, is not a trend but a constant: the conviction that, in the words of Adlai II's mother, Helen, "character is better than all success." Adlai I complained about the new era of politics in which "men pursue politics for what there is in it." Adlai II wondered "how you can win [an election] without, in essence, proving yourself unworthy of winning." Adlai III argued that the object of a campaign is not winning but rather "informing the people so they can make sensible decisions."

However noble, such talk can have only limited appeal in a nation that views success more as a sign of character than a threat to it. The Stevensons might have liked politics better and been better at it if they had focused less on their moral purity and more on getting things done.

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