Bay Buchanan said “I think he was a class act” (link). Charles Murray thought it “just plain flat out brilliant” (link). David Gergen (on CNN) says “He’s one of the rare leaders who speaks to us as adults.”
Well, I hope. But a little voice in me hears “speaks to us as adults” and mutters “Adlai Stevenson.” And I answer “uh oh.”
Stevenson was the first political candidate of my political “maturity,” such as it was. We loved him for his civility, his aplomb, and most of all for the cultivated good taste of his talk. We tried to restrain ourselves, but when he fell to Eisenhower—twice—we knew that he’d been done in by a bunch of vulgarians.
Fifty years on, I know better. Stevenson was a charmer—we’ve never had a better, never ever. But charm is no more than part of the story. His appeal was never very broad; he was the first of a series of chardonnay candidates, in a tradition that carried us through to John Kerry. More fatal, we can see now that he never really had the grit for the presidency. The best of them need at least a little slice of wily and mean.
Is Barack Obama Adlai Stevenson? Well no. Stevenson’s patrician charm has little in common with Obama’s kumbaya. Obama reaches more people, more directly, but he still doesn’t reach everybody. And the more urgent question persists: is he gritty, wiley and mean; does he have the temperament, not just to get along, but to be an effective president? I don’t think we know that yet. And there may be only one way to find out.
Afterthought: On the other hand, remember what Walter Lippman said about FDR: “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.” Here’s hoping.
Afterthought to afterthought: Santayana said that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. I think he may have had it backwards. It was those who remember history who keep trying to do it again and again.