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Appealing and Appalling

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Adlai Stevenson II (1900-1965), governor of Illinois and twice presidential candidate on the Democratic Party ticket. His final political role was as American ambassador to the United Nations.

In his day Stevenson was considered something of an intellectual among politicians; he certainly would be considered that today. He was not the best judge of character—in 1949 he testified at a Congressional hearing in defense of Alger Hiss—nor the best judge of furniture. Staying overnight at the White House when Harry Truman was president, Stevenson was put up in the Lincoln Bedroom. In awe of his surroundings, he couldn’t bring himself to sleep in the bed, so he slept on the sofa, unaware that the bed was not from Lincoln’s time but the sofa was.

This story may be apocryphal: It is said that during his first run against Dwight Eisenhower, in 1952, Stevenson was approached by a woman who gushed, “Governor, every thinking person will be voting for you!” Stevenson replied, “Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority.”

Better attested is a line he gave when introduced to a religious convention during his unsuccessful 1956 campaign. Stevenson’s host remarked that the candidate had been invited merely as a courtesy and that Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, already had instructed attendees to vote for Eisenhower. Stevenson quipped, “Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.” (Technically, Stevenson wasn’t a Christian; he was a Unitarian.)

Speaking of Peale: During the 1960 presidential campaign, with Peale near the height of his popularity, he brought out the anti-Catholic stick, saying, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.” He was condemned roundly by politicians in both parties and recanted his remarks.

I wish Peale’s line could be applied accurately against a future presidential candidate. It would be delightful to see nominated someone who adheres so closely to Catholic teaching that he really would put our sick culture “at stake.” But it won’t happen. While I would find him appealing, most Americans would find him appalling.

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