“What counts now is not just what we are against, but what we are for.  Who leads us is less important than what leads us — what convictions, what courage, what faith — win or lose.”

I read this quote on my page-a-day calendar on November 8, 2016.  The sentiment resonated with me at the time, and I put it in my stack of quotations whose context I want to investigate.

Adlai Stevenson, as governor of Illinois, delivered a welcome address to the Democratic convention held in Chicago in July 1952.  Although there had been a months-long campaign to draft Stevenson as the Democratic candidate for President, he repeatedly refused the entreaties.  Nonetheless, he wound up winning the nomination on the third ballot — the last candidate to win a nomination but not win the first ballot of the convention.  He faced Dwight D. Eisenhower in the general election, losing 442-89 in the Electoral College vote.  This speech is a part of the book In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century.

Stevenson followed up the excerpt above by saying:

“I hope the spirit of this convention is confident reaffirmation that the United States is strong, resolved, resourceful, and rich; that we know the duty and the destiny of this heaven-rescued land; that we can and we will pursue a strong, consistent, and honorable policy abroad, and meanwhile preserve the free institutions of life and of commerce at home.  What America needs and the world wants is not bombast, abuse, and double-talk, but a sober message of firm faith and confidence.”

A few days later in his acceptance speech, Stevenson said:

“I would not seek your nomination for the Presidency because the burdens of that office stagger the imagination.  Its potential for good or evil now and in the years of our lives smothers exultation and converts vanity to prayer . . . that my heart has been troubled, that I have not sought this nomination, that I could not seek it in good conscience, that I would not seek it in honest self-appraisal, it is not to say that I value it the less.  Rather it is that I revere the office of the Presidency of the United States.”

With a nomination he did not seek, facing a World War II hero, and carrying the mantle for a party with an unpopular sitting president, Stevenson accepted an insurmountable challenge.  The country was also mired in Cold War fears, fueled by the conflict in Korea.  And he was weighed down by a press that nicknamed him an “egghead.”  Yet Stevenson found a way to maintain his optimism and his commitment to American ideals.

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