LIBERTYVILLE, Ill. The Stevenson family has a long history with political conventions.
Great-grandfather Jesse Fell went to the Republican convention in Chicago in 1860 to help turn the brand-new Republican Party to his friend Abraham Lincoln.
In 1892, the first Adlai Stevenson was nominated to run for vice president, with Democrat Grover Cleveland, in Chicago. In 1900, he was nominated a second time, this time on a ticket headed by William Jennings Bryan.
In 1948, the second Adlai Stevenson, running for governor of Illinois, took his 17-year-old son, Adlai III, with him to the Chicago convention that nominated President Harry S. Truman and gave the No. 2 spot to their cousin, Sen. Alben Barkley of Kentucky.
In 1952, Adlai II gave such a stunning welcoming address to the delegates in Chicago that they drafted him as their candidate for president. Four years later, they did so again.
So it was altogether fitting that on a sunny, cool Sunday afternoon this week, several hundred people filled a tent behind the white farmhouse where former governor Stevenson made his home in this suburb north of Chicago. Their treat was an eclectic panel that joined Adlai III, a U.S. senator in the 1970s, in reminiscing about conventions past and answering questions from television newsman Bill Kurtis.
With only one exception, all the panelists had sought the presidential nomination. Two were Republicans: Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana and former congressman John Anderson of Illinois, who ran as an independent in 1980 after failing in the GOP primaries. The Democrats were former senator George McGovern of South Dakota and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
A unique perspective came from veteran Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, who, as a young police officer, had been part of the security detail for then-Mayor Richard J. Daley at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey for president and launched the national political careers of McGovern and Jackson.
Burke, who is co-author of a history of Chicago political conventions and a stalwart of the current Daley machine, had by far the most positive view of conventions. All the others had things they would like to see improved.
Lugar, who has twice been rumored to be the choice for vice president, said there ought to be a more humane way of letting down those who get mentioned but are not chosen especially if they're beaten out by someone like Spiro Agnew. McGovern, who was forced to drop Sen. Tom Eagleton, his original choice for No. 2, in favor of Sargent Shriver, said he often has wished that he had followed the example of Stevenson in 1956 and let the delegates choose the running mate.
But Adlai III said his father was bitterly disappointed that those delegates bypassed his favorite, John Kennedy, and saddled him with Estes Kefauver, his most persistent rival in the spring primaries.
There was general lamentation about the rising cost of politics. Stevenson said the entire budget for his father's 1948 campaign for governor was $157,000. McGovern said the tab for his 1972 presidential race was $32 million. "Now," said Stevenson, "the candidates will spend $1 billion this year."
Jackson complained that "we have two parties but one source of money," those who can afford to write checks and as a result, he said, "real issues don't get debated."
But the panel cast a skeptical eye on many popular ideas for reforming the process. The idea of a national primary to shorten the campaign was rejected by McGovern and Lugar, but Anderson found scattered support for his "American Plan" for a radically altered primary calendar that would start with small-population states and end with the electoral giants.
The biggest surprise to me was McGovern's stance on the "superdelegate" issue that roiled the waters between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama this year. McGovern recalled that the "superdelegates," elected and party officials, were given a free pass into the convention in reaction to the rules his commission had drafted that opened the Democratic convention to blacks, Hispanics, women and young people.
"Tip O'Neill was beaten in his own precinct by a 20-year-old woman supporter of mine," McGovern said, arguing that the superdelegates are needed to leaven the mixture on the convention floor.
The conventions of which they spoke were much livelier affairs than those we have seen in recent years, where everything has been negotiated in advance. The new Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy will take on the challenge of trying to improve these conventions without making them even more scripted.