This is a story I never told any of my family members. When I recently told my wife about it she said I had to write it down. Pass it on to our kids and grandkids. How an Eisenhower conservative took the side of liberal Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, in a debate before a Republican audience which would vote on the winner.
Dwight Eisenhower was running for reelection after an exemplary first term and was widely considered as unbeatable in an election as he was as a World War Two hero and five star general. His opponent in both his elections was Adlai Stevenson, former governor of Illinois who was considered more an intellectual than Ike, a deep thinker. He ran twice for president, in 1952 and 1956, both times against Eisenhower.
I was in my senior year at Bridgewater College in the Fall of 1956. I was a staunch “I Like Ike” guy and editor of the school paper. Being a church college, we had chapel three times a week, required of all 600 students and faculty members. One week I had a visit by a college Dean with an unusual request. It seems the powers that be felt in chapel we should have a debate between an Eisenhower supporter and a Stevenson supporter.
One problem: They could not find a single Democrat willing to speak for Adlai.
Because I had done MC work in school variety shows they asked me to do the job, likely hoping I would keep it light and interesting. So I agreed. I did not want to miss graduating because of bucking our peerless school, where I assumed, like in most of our chapels, students would be reading, passing notes and napping.
So came the day and my opponent was a most unusual heavy-set guy whose cause was less Republican and more for making a case for one world government. No more national boundaries, the United Nations would run the world. Hardly a real Republican belief except perhaps with Nelson Rockefeller. I cannot remember the name of the speaker, but he droned on and on and nearly put me asleep on stage. They finally had to ring a bell on him as he went way over time. Then it was my turn and considering the brilliance of the speaking style of my opponent, I was a bit nervous.
I admit I did not hit many issues, but made use of statements made by Adlai Stevenson himself. First, one that I repeated in the presentation: “As Adlai Stevenson has promised, I am for the little man–the little man who is the heart of this nation.” I repeated this and had to add, “Personally, I prefer little women.” That got everyone’s attention and awoke the audience. At the time the liberal press made a great deal over how down-to-earth Adlai was, and delighted in showing a picture of him with a hole in the bottom of the shoe. So I went on saying, “We Stevenson supporters know how to follow a leader,” and I took my shoes off. Very corny. (The action, not my feet.)
Then I had to go to one of Adlai’s biggest humor lines. He was often accused of talking over the heads of others. When high above the crowds on a speaker stand, Adlai liked to say, “Now I am really talking over people’s heads.” So I improvised saying, “It is not true that my candidate speaks over peoples heads. He is really appealing to Democrats with no heads.”
At the end of my presentation I opened my jacket to reveal a necktie with the name “IKE” which brought down the house. I was surprised by the applause. Winning the vote of the chapel audience also surprised me. Even Democrats, for the most part, voted for me. This was the first political venture of my life. That November, being of age, I cast my first vote, of course for Dwight Eisenhower who Joe Biden really makes me miss. I also miss Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, and pray we can correct some things in November and also in 2024.