Adlai E. Stevenson III has lived through more than eight decades of American history, and his ancestors have helped lead this state and country since the days of Abraham Lincoln. Now retired from politics, he sees Illinois and the U.S. as being in dire need of leadership.
"I am hoping (President Barack) Obama will be stronger in his second administration," said the former Democratic U.S. senator and two-time candidate for Illinois governor. "Our Congress will not act in any responsible way without strong presidential leadership."
Mr. Stevenson, 82, draws from a lifelong interest in politics as he sits back in retirement and offers armchair assessments.
During his political career, Mr. Stevenson served two years in the Illinois House, was Illinois treasurer from 1967 to 1970, and was a U.S. senator from 1970 to 1981. In 1976, he was among a handful of people considered for vice president by Jimmy Carter. In 1982 and 1986, he ran for governor of Illinois — losing both times to Jim Thompson.
In 1979, Stevenson authored the Comprehensive Counterterrorism Act, which warned of spectacular acts of disruption and destruction. An amendment he proposed would have reduced assistance to Israel until settlement policies were consistent with U.S. policy, but it failed.
In his first run for Illinois governor, in 1982, the initial vote count showed Stevenson the winner, but an official recount gave the victory to Republican Jim Thompson. The decision went to the state Supreme Court, with Stevenson presenting evidence of punch-card irregularities. The court denied a recount by a one-vote margin.
"I helped write the comprehensive anti-terrorism act of 1979, and that alienated the Israeli lobby. When the issue of a recount went to the Supreme Court, (Justice) Seymour Simon went with the Republicans to deny the recount because of Israel," he said. "In reality, I was trying to help Israel. It's an issue that still needs resolution."
In his second gubernatorial campaign, in 1986, two followers of the Lyndon LaRouche faction of the Democratic Party won primary nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. Stevenson objected to their platform and organized the Solidarity Party, with Mike Howlett as the candidate for lieutenant governor. The slate was endorsed by the regular Democratic organization. It won 40 percent of the vote, but not the election.
Party leaders asked Stevenson to run against Rod Blagojevich in the 2001 primary, but he declined.
Following his political career, Stevenson served as chairman of SC&M Investment Management Corp. and was co-chair of Hua Mei Capital Co., a Chinese/American financing intermediary.
He and his wife, Nancy, now split their time between a home on the North Side of Chicago and a farm at Hanover, near Galena.
Since 2008, much of their energy has been directed to the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy, which was established in the home of his father on land managed by the Lake County Forest Preserve near Libertyville, Ill.
Stevenson said he sees no obvious answers to the problems faced by his home state.
"The problems in Illinois pretty much parallel the breakdown of the party organizations in the state," Stevenson said. "When Blagojevich was elected, there was no party organization left. (House Speaker Mike) Madigan and Richard Daley tried to get me to run a third time, but I had no interest.
"The Democrats used to win elections by campaigning. When my father ran for governor, he spent $157,000. In his day, there was no pay to play. He recruited the best leaders he could get, regardless of their party background. Now all the candidates do are flyovers and fundraisers. I wouldn't go into this kind of politics."
"We have lost our balance,' Stevenson said, adding he would love to see the political parties reorganized. Modern conventions, he said, are just media events.
Mrs. Stevenson said she holds Gov. Pat Quinn responsible for the political infighting in the Illinois Legislature. As a young crusading politician, Gov. Quinn led the battle to eliminate the three-member representative districts that forced members of opposite parties to work together.
"He doesn't have people in the Legislature that respect him," her husband added. "He is a governor without constituents."
Washington, D.C., also is buckling under a lack of leadership, Stevenson said. With much bigger problems looming, President Obama is worried about gun control, he noted.
"If the president can't handle gun control, how is he going to handle the international monetary system, much less the Syrians?" he asked.
The former senator also questioned the nation's policy toward China. "We could make China a big opportunity, but instead people want to make them the enemy," he said.
While Stevenson occasionally second-guesses his decision to leave the U.S. Senate, he is delighted with the path he chose, he said.
"Was it a mistake to leave the Senate? I had some seniority. It was collegial then, but it was starting to change. It was becoming episodic, and the issues were getting trivialized. In 1976, Richard J. Daley wanted me to run for president. I decided I wasn't ready, but in retrospect I was relatively ready."
"I don't recall any partisanship in the Senate," said Stevenson of his time in office. "We were divided, but not along party lines. When it was time to write legislation, we would lock the doors. When we opened them, all the lobbyists would flow in.
"Now the doors are open; the senators no longer legislate; and the staff is writing the legislation. They are elected one day and start raising money for the next campaign the next."
Stevenson was one of a handful of candidates considered for vice president by Jimmy Carter, but Walter Mondale was selected. Mrs. Stevenson said she may have killed her husband's chances.
"I met with Rosalyn Carter, and she said she wanted the children to live in the White House and be in on everything. She wanted them to be ambassadors," Mrs. Stevenson said. "One of the things I was so grateful to my father-in-law for was that he wanted us to live separate and independent lives. That was a great comfort to me, and I told her so.
"For me, it was more important that the family be active together," she added. "I think I did him in," she said of her husband's vice presidential chances.
Today, this nation is in need of political leaders, Stevenson said. Modern leaders should have real-world experience. They should have lived in China or Africa and seen the world from outside the Western prism, he said.
"A lot of people are very concerned. The anxiety is palpable," Mr. Stevenson said. "Politics is so poisonous. Who will invest in you if you can't be bought? The quality (of politicians) has deteriorated even as the need has increased.
"So many want power just for the sake of power."