Adlai E. Stevenson III, who knows a thing or three about nepotism in Illinois politics, offered an interesting explanation of the phenomenon in a story about the fact that next year’s race for governor may feature a Madigan and a Daley.
“My father used to say he was born with an incurable, hereditary case of politics,” Stevenson said. “You’re born into a life of service, and sometimes you’re just conditioned to carry on.”
Stevenson, of course, is a scion of Illinois’s longest-lasting political dynasty -- the only one to span four generations. It began with Adlai Stevenson I, who served as a congressman from Bloomington in the 1870s, then as vice president in Grover Cleveland’s second administration. His son, Lewis, was appointed Illinois Secretary of State, serving from 1914 to 1917. Then came the most famous Stevenson of all -- Adlai II, who was governor of Illinois from 1949 to 1953, before giving up that office to mount two hopeless presidential campaigns against Dwight D. Eisenhower. President John F. Kennedy consoled him with an appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations.
By the 1960s, the Stevenson name was so well regarded in Illinois that even Adlai III, a politician of negligible charisma, could ride it to high office. In 1964, the Illinois Legislature failed to reapportion itself, and held a “blanket” election, in which 177 representatives were elected statewide. The name “Adlai Stevenson III” was the top vote getter. Stevenson then served as state treasurer, then defeated Ralph Tyler Smith in 1970 to fill the remainder of the late Everett Dirksen’s Senate term. No glad-hander, Stevenson retired from the Senate after 10 years, to run for his father’s old job -- governor of Illinois. But not even his family name could overcome the bad luck he encountered. In 1982, he lost to Gov. Jim Thompson by 1/7th of 1 percent of the vote. In his own words:
Though the election was virtually tied, and evidence of widespread election irregularities, including a failed punch card system for recording votes, was presented to the Illinois Supreme Court, it denied his request for a recount by one vote. He was renominated by the Democratic Party for Governor in 1986, but candidates of the LaRouche cult were nominated for Lt. Governor and Secretary of State, forcing him to resign the nomination and run as a third Party candidate. He won 40% of the vote.
However, the Stevensons are proof that it’s possible for the political urge to die out, even in a family of Illinois politicians. Adlai IV adopted a more honest profession, becoming a reporter for WMAQ. (Another Stevenson, McLean, became an actor, playing Lt. Col. Henry Blake on M*A*S*H -- in a University of Illinois sweater.) Although IV vowed that he would be “Adlai the Last,” there is an Adlai V. He turned 18 last year. He’ll let us know whether the Stevenson family’s hereditary case of politics has really been cured.