Reviewer James Broderick, Ph.D: James is an associate professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is the author of six non-fiction books, and the novel Stalked. His latest book is Greatness Thrust Upon Them, a collection of interviews with Shakespearean actors across America. Follow Here To Listen To An Interview With James Broderick.
Author: Adlai Stevenson III
Publisher: Adlai Stevenson III
Publisher: Adlai Stevenson III
Whenever I’m feeling cynical about politics – and given the ratcheting up of the three-ring circus of American electoral politics, that’s much of the time lately – I like to recall a quote by one of my favorite writers/commentators, Gore Vidal: “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.”
Alas, it turns out more often than not that Americans get the president they deserve. But amid the fear mongering and banal rhetorical fusillades that mark the current presidential campaign, not all political watchers are without hope that we might once again see men and women of sufficiently-steeled spines return to the once-honorable fold of public service:
“Despite the metamorphosis of American politics, there still are many courageous and sensible men and women prepared to lay down their political lives for their country,” argues Adlai Stevenson III, compiler and editor of The Black Book, an annotated compendium of his family’s accumulated political wisdom, from the mid-19th Century until the Barack Obama administration.
The Black Book began life as a scrapbook, started by Adlai Stevenson I, vice president under Grover Cleveland. Adlai I recorded sayings, inspirational quotes, first-hand anecdotes, historical tidbits and diary entries. The eclectic collection was inherited by Adlai II, who as a candidate for president (he ran as the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956), expanded the scrapbook, filling it with pithy political observations, letters, and memos dating back to his time in the Roosevelt Administration. Adlai III, former Marine Corps veteran, candidate for Illinois Governor, and U.S. Senator, expanded the collection even further. Representing a century-and-a-half (the Black Book contains contributions from great-great grandfather Jesse Fell, who proposed the idea that Lincoln and Douglass should have public debates) of closely observed political machinations, the book is part history text, part Poor Richard’s Almanac, part Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
Mostly, though, it’s a sobering reminder of how political discourse has become cheapened by spin doctors and professional campaign manipulators. Once upon a time, the book suggests, politicians engaged in genuine deep thinking, wedded more to the search for wisdom than a desire to please a focus group. We’ve come a long and sordid way from Abraham Lincoln’s “The Bible is not my Book and Christianity is not my religion. I could never give assent to the long and complicated statements of Christian Dogma,” to Adlai Stevenson II’s “Only men who confuse themselves with God would dare to pretend in this anguished and bloody era that they know the exact road to the Promised Land,” to the vainglorious religious pronouncements of the current crop of Republican candidates running for president.
But this is not a dour book. The Black Book contains lots of humorous and inspiring quotes from the multi-generational Stevensons, as well as generous dollops of political wisdom, ranging from contemporary political figures to the sages of antiquity. (Of the hundreds of quotes peppered throughout its pages, my favorite is by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a man who didn’t view changing his mind in light of new circumstances as a weakness. He once famously explained a change of position by saying “It appears that it does not appear to me now as it appears to have appeared to me then.” Priceless.)
The Black Book is a welcome reminder that politics and thought were once inextricably linked, and that humility used to be an important quality in a public servant. The next time you feel insulted by the debased political pandering of contemporary office seekers broadcasting their fitness for office, remember this cautionary bromide from Ralph Waldo Emerson, reprinted on p. 257 of The Black Book: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”
Follow Here To Purchase The Black Book