This article was last modified on March 8, 2011.


Interview with Senator Adlai Stevenson III

The following interview took place in early March 2011 and will be used for an upcoming article in “The Scene”. For more information, I encourage you to pick up Stevenson’s book, The Black Book

GS: The introduction speaks highly of President Obama’s prospects and not so highly of President Bush. Does this mean your book is not meant for people on “the other side of the aisle”?

AS: I tacked on the preface regarding Obama after the book had been finished — the original black book was “closed”. I did not mean to express an opinion about Obama — except to say there was reason for hope. (As it turns out, I am disappointed by him but not altogether surprised.) The book laments the new partisanship, and recalls a Senate in which there was none. We did not divide on issues along party lines. The center was broad, reason reigned — and we had some wise men, too. I lament the passing of that politics. The more we reformed our politics, usually in the name of more democracy, the more unaccountable and partisan it became. The Black Book is for concerned Americans regardless of party. The first generation of my family in the Black Book was Republican (i.e. great great grandfather Jesse Fell, Lincoln’s sponsor) and my example of the American Citizen for whom service to community and country was a welcome duty. (And this continues down to my generation.)

GS: Your family has a long tradition of political involvement in Illinois. Today, as you know, Illinois and Chicago have developed a reputation as being politically corrupt. What do you think of the direction your state has gone, and particularly with Governor Blagojevich?

AS: It is not only Illinois. In fact, judging by federal prosecutions for official corruption, Illinois is near the norm. Blagojevich was a product of the new politics: he raked in the most money and won. Rahm Emmanuel just raked in the most money and won. So did Obama. Money is a measure of viability in this politics. In the old politics money was evidence of corruptibility. The party leaders tried to persuade me to run against Blagojevich — they knew better. But it was too late for me; Blagojevich was the popular choice.

GS: You lament that political parties today are about “power” and not “purpose”. How can we turn this ship around?

AS: That is the $64,000 question — and the reason for The Black Book — to contrast the values which created the country with those which are undermining it. It contains answers. Ironically, the more we reformed politics (and I led the charge), usually in the name of more democracy, the more undemocratic it became. Party organization which selected all the great presidents, senators and governor has all but died — except for fund raising. We opened the doors to the legislative process to let in the sunshine, but we let in the lobbyists, too. They and the interest groups proliferated to take advantage of the new access. Our politics lost its balance and its center. The founders had aimed to create a representative democracy. I have any number of partial answers on how to fix things, e.g. shorter campaigns and less money, shorter ballots. More public broadcasting and information about the world. The people are uninformed — especially about the world — compared to those of other developed democracies. You’re tempting me to make a speech!

GS: Continuing with “power” over “purpose”, I am curious about your story of Adlai I firing 40,000 Republican postmasters and replacing them with Democrats. Unless I am missing something, that sounds like a blatant abuse of political power.

AS: Adlai I was exercising power. Those were patronage jobs. My father was able to replace 30,000. He cleaned house. Officials sacrificed to serve, now they pay to play. I had a patronage office as State Treasurer and was able to clean house, reduce the budget every year and quadruple earnings on the investment of state funds. Now that the old fashioned patronage is outlawed, Democrats have to compete on Republican terms — with money. That’s where the real abuse of power comes in — public offices and public policies being essentially auctioned. I point out this paradox and suggest we need to find a balance.

GS: While in the Senate, you put forth a “measure to distance the US from the settlements policy of the newly elected Likud government of Israel.” Today, this might be political suicide. Was it easier to be controversial in your day, or was this an act of bravery?

AS: After the Likud came to power and systematically began its settlements, and Egypt was neutralized, I began the first Congressional study of terrorism which ended with explicit warnings, the introduction of the Comprehensive Anti-Terrorism Act of 1979, and the measure to which you refer. It was an amendment which reduced US aid for Israel by $200 million until such time as the president could certify that Israel’s settlements policy was consistent with US policy. I knew it would not pass. I aimed to demonstrate that given a choice between supporting the Israeli lobby (AIPAC) and US policy, the Congress would support the lobby. My amendment won 7 brave votes. It would be less suicidal today because people, including a larger number of American Jews, agree and are organizing to resist the lobby. It was suicidal for me — by one Zionist Democratic vote in the Illinois Supreme Court — thus denying me a recount in the 1982 gubernatorial election, though the vote was tied and the evidence of irregularities was impressive.

GS: In 1968, you refused a pledge to support the war in Indochina. Was your refusal specific to this war, or do you feel “loyalty oaths” in general are wrong?

AS: All the candidates for party endorsement were asked to pledge support for the war in Vietnam. It was not a loyalty oath (which I don’t approve of, either). I refused to take the pledge because I was opposed to the war. Daley suggested that I take it and then do as I please. I thought that was dishonest and bad politics. The winning candidate took the pledge, opposed the war and lost the election.

GS: You say that Nixon defeating Humphrey was “a victory for prolonged war and American defeat.” Defeat in what way? And prolonged war how? It was Nixon who ended the Vietnam conflict, and LBJ (a Democrat) who escalated it.

AS: Humphrey was a man of peace, my father’s friend, and trapped. He wanted to oppose the war but felt he had to be loyal to Johnson. As soon as he began during the summer to distance himself form the war he began to rise in the polls. Nixon did not end the war. He is alleged to have sabotaged the negotiations in Paris to prolong it beyond the election. The war was ended by our defeat and humiliating flight from Saigon.

GS: Was there any way we could have “won” in Vietnam?

AS: Win in Vietnam? Win what? A fight to contain the spread of Communism by conquering Vietnamese nationalists seeking independence from the French, Russians, Chinese and Americans? We “won” by losing. My book discusses the limits of war. I can’t remember if I mentioned it, but in 1994, I told Secretary of State Warren Christopher I was going to Hanoi. Vietnam was then isolated by the US and the “dominoes” in South East Asia. I was president of the US committee of Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC). with a young American friend who had put roots down in Vietnam, we received red carpet treatment in Hanoi. Membership in PECC, APEC, and US normalization of relations followed quickly. Vietnam is now part of ASEAN etc. We lost by waging war against the Vietnamese — lost throughout the world. We won by losing. But that winning requires a visit by two Americans to Hanoi defying or ignoring all the governments!. Our round trip to Hanoi did not cost much, and it cost the US taxpayers nothing. War is easy. Peace could be, too.

GS: You say Carter had “limited vision and purpose.” Can you elaborate?

AS: That’s subjective and a little unfair of me. His White House team was all from Georgia. He did have some strong cabinet members with whom we worked closely, e.g. Schlesinger at Energy and my friend Phil Kluznick at Commerce. He went along with the military for the hostage rescue mission, ignoring the advice of Secretary Vance who knew better and would quietly resign as secretary of state. I don’t remember initiatives coming from the white house. I met with him many times, and was given the pen for the first Act he signed into law (one of my energy bills). I don’t remember any conversations of substance. His background was being in the Navy and farming in Georgia. A thoroughly decent man but not in my opinion a visionary. These are somewhat subjective judgments with which I am not very comfortable, but I don’t think they would get much argument in Washington. He has been an exemplary former President.

GS: The last thirty years has seen a rise in the so-called Religious Right. At the same time, the level of atheism and agnosticism has also risen. How do you account for this disparity?

AS: The founders were creatures of the Enlightenment — of Reason. Most were agnostic, if not atheistic. “The priests of the different religious sects … dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live,” said Thomas Jefferson. For some Science and Reason triumph. No evidence supports religion, which accounts for most wars. That is to say, most are waged in the name of God and religion. The founders were conditioned by centuries of religious warfare and the intolerance of Calvinists in New England. So it is not surprising that agnosticism is on the rise, with the rule of reason and the spread of conflict in God’s name… But the “religious right”? Has anyone attempted to correlate levels of education and intelligence with their religious fundamentalism? I am not sure, but perhaps the religious right flourishes in ignorance which is easily acquired. A chapter of the Black Book is focused on this general subject, including the commercialization of religion.

GS: You talk of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Tribune (among others) being poor sources of information. The case is true practically everywhere. Where can voters/citizens go for proper media input?

AS: Reporters are among the first to complain about US news coverage. Sarah Chayes in her book about Afghanistan refers to the “desert” of international new coverage in US newspapers. Rupert Murdoch rules the airwaves. The FCC no longer enforces standards for its licenses. And the world grows more dynamic and complex. It’s a good question. The Adlai Stevenson Center made its first project: “How can people be informed in the information age?” We don’t have the answer yet. The New York Times and Financial Times are good papers. Other countries are starting or continuing English language broadcasting: BBCW, France, NHK, Germany and now China. These countries do better. The only mass media which tries to report news as it breaks from on the ground the world over is Al-Jazeera, with its correspondents being BBC trained. But it is hard to get in the US. I can sometimes pick it up on a dish channel or by antenna. We have a PBS channel which includes Al-Jazeera coverage and commentators. I am not an internet whiz but it can be a source, though experts say it depends on traditional media for sources — which are closing down. I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer.

GS: Your father was campaigning for president the same time you were entering the Marines. Obviously, Korea was a huge issue. Did your being in the service affect his proposed policies?

AS: I don’t remember Korea being much of an issue in that campaign, but I remember little, being plenty busy with Marine Corps training. The basic training was hell. I was a private, my father a presidential candidate. The marine corps exploited it — my platoon was forced to go over the obstacle course, double time with full packs, etc. until the press had all the pics the wanted. My father presented our Second Lt. Commissions to me as representative of the class after a speech in which he called on us to be good representatives of our country.

GS: I find it shocking that Korea couldn’t have been a central issue during the Korean War.

AS: I was preoccupied, so I may have missed something regarding Korea. Truman’s recall of MacArthur created a big brouhaha, but I don’t recall an issue about the war itself. We went in nominally with UN support (while the Soviets were asleep).

GS: Do you have any memories of working with your Senate colleagues from Wisconsin?

AS: I worked closely with Bill Proxmire, Chairman of he Senate Banking Committee, and son of my childhood dentist! Bill was a loner, preached economy in government, never missed a session. He was more interested in domestic issues while I focused on international ones. But we had a very good relationship. I think the other Wisconsin Democrat was Gaylord Nelson. I remember him less well, but as a fiercely independent and ethical, rational (non-ideological) Senator in the Wisconsin progressive tradition. I don’t recall working with him directly on issues. We must have been on different committees. I do recall having much respect for him.

GS: Along the same lines, I have been asked to see if you have any sort of response to the current situation in Madison, union-busting, etc.

AS: In my gubernatorial campaigns I opposed collective bargaining for public employees on the grounds that public officials had no incentive to “bargain” and every incentive to accommodate labor. I supported labor and collective bargaining in general — but not with public officials. (My Republican opponent gave away the store and we are paying a high price for it in Illinois.) In Wisconsin today I think my sympathies are with Labor. Apparently, according to the phony Koch Brothers telephone call, this dispute is more about politics and power than collective bargaining. Another symptom of a sick politics.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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