This is by far the shortest of the 20th Century DNC speeches from the nominee, so there’s not too much to say.
Adlai Stevenson is the only man who ever got a nomination solely for his rhetorical wit. The 1952 DNC was unsure of who to nominate. (This was, I believe, the last truly contested convention ever, at least from the Democrats. Even ’68, despite its chaos, had Humphrey as the presumed nominee). So when Adlai gave such a great keynote address on the first day, the delegates decided to go with him as the nominee. Stevenson’s great use of rhetoric is undisputed by his contemporaries; even his harshest critics could think of no greater condemnation than to call him an “egghead” and say his speeches were too intellectual for the common people. With all that background in mind, I went into this speech with high expectations.
Some notable points right upfront: Adlai’s opening is perhaps the most self-deprecating I’ve ever seen a Presidential nominee allow themselves to be. And judging by the sounds the crowd makes and Adlai’s reaction, apparently he got heckled in the beginning there—the only time I’ve ever seen that happen to a Presidential candidate at their own convention. He also goes out of his way to remind the audience he did not seek this nomination, which makes this perhaps the last time a major candidate has ever reluctantly accepted a nomination placed upon them by others. In the early days, up to the 1896 election, it was the decorum for Presidential candidates to put on a show of not wanting to be President but rising to the call of duty when others advocated on their behalf. Adlai’s is the final nomination for which that may be said.
Something I find interesting was how much this speech feels more like praise for the party and audience as a whole instead of building himself and his own vision up. It’s really unlike any other convention speech in that regard. It’s as if Adlai is making himself into the faceless, ego-less stand-in for any Democrat as opposed to a man with a bold vision who’s going to change America through his own force of will. He also calls for his campaign to not try to kill the other party but lead America to a higher standard. It’s interesting to go back in time and see how the Democrats always seemed to be more polite (for better or worse) while the Republicans were (at least appearing to be) more overtly hostile (and in my opinion they certainly earned that reputation by the 70’s at least).
I’m really surprised Adlai was seen to be talking over most voters heads. I don’t think anything he said here was too hard to understand or too intellectual. In fact, I found it easier to follow along with him than Eisenhower’s speeches. And if anything, it’s a bit vacuous because Stevenson did not campaign up to this point, and thus has no platform of his own to outline nor any prepared anecdotes or spiel to offer up. Instead, this speech feels a lot more like an advertisement for the Democratic Party in general. Something you’d see in a recruitment video or keynote address. It’s very effective in this regard, just incredibly unusual as far as Presidential candidates’ acceptance speeches go. I wonder if his campaign stump speeches were different, unfortunately none seem to survive or else they’re incredibly difficult to find on the web.
With Adlai in 1956, we see the only time in the modern post-video era where an unsuccessful Democratic candidate will have to give a convention speech speech a second time. (The Republican counterpart in this regard is Richard Nixon.) Stevenson chooses to bring up the ’52 loss once, quickly in the beginning, and promises that this time will be victorious. You’ll notice with the future speeches that this strategy would become dominant–address the uncomfortable truths early on so you don’t appear to be running from them. Then move on and suddenly it’s irrelevant by the end of the speech if you’ve done a good job stirring the crowd with your rhetoric.
Adlai is more congratulatory of his VP selection than any other candidate I’ve ever seen. Usually they get a quick shout-out, Adlai devotes a whole paragraph’s worth of praise and even brings up the possibility of his own death in doing so. Maybe this is because Kefauver is one of the few times where Democrats have actually taken my advice and offered the runner up primary candidate the VP slot. However, this was before the modern (post-McGovern commission after the ’68 election) primary system. Candidates didn’t really compete in the same way they do today for the nomination, and so I find it doubtful that anyone was really bitter Kefauver wasn’t the nominee in the same way they got sore Jesse Jackson or Bernie Sanders were snubbed in their respective competitions.
When Stevenson finally gets into his platform about ten minutes in, it must have sounded so unbelievably advanced back in the ’50s. We still haven’t accomplished the “abolishment of poverty” or freedom in race, religion and identity for example. A lot of these goals would still be advanced by Democratic candidates for decades afterward, showing both how influential Adlai was to the later Great Society reforms and how little progress we have made as a society since then.
About 15 minutes in, Adlai makes a surprisingly prescient observation of the trend in politics (specifically Eisenhower’s GOP) to rely on sloganeering and branding in order to sway voters as opposed to relying on sound policy. This has been true ever since, but you usually don’t see the candidates themselves call attention to such a thing. He also partakes in the unusual strategy (as far as a Presidential nominee is concerned) by asking questions to the audience (regarding Eisenhower) and eliciting a response of “no!” from the crowd. The only other candidate to do something like this was Bill Clinton.
Adlai relies on the same rhetoric the Democrats often use against the Republicans, but I’m sure it must have been relatively new at the time he delivered it. When he describes the Republicans as America standing still, and Democrats as moving forward it feels a lot more earnest. I’m used to Hillary Clinton or Obama almost saying lines like that as an unintentional punchline rather than a genuine ideological call for progress. His chorus is “we can, and our record shows we will,” then a lot of the next section begins with “we must.” I love the line towards the end of his speech: “once we were not ashamed to be idealists.” Amen, brother. I would like to use that line against the modern pundits and neoliberals who slander progressives and ideologues.
Overall, it’s an above average speech. I think the reason it doesn’t stand out much today though is because it’s hardly different from what has come so often afterwards, similar to how every Farewell Address after ’52 copied his outline. I’m sure at the time it was given this must have sounded a lot more bold and unprecedented. His rhetoric is fine, but I personally find it a bit unremarkable; it’s hardly worthy of its “egghead” reputation. His oration is similarly decent but not particularly effective or memorably unique.