Saturday, February 12, 2011

An Interview with Adlai Stevenson III, Part One: Government Transparency

Editor's Note:

Earlier this week I had the great honor to be able to interview former Illinois Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III. He is promoting a new book entitled The Black Book, in which he summarizes a career spent in public service as well as sharing his thoughts about the current day. We covered a lot of ground in our hour-long talk, so I intend to write a series of posts as a result. This, then, is Part One.


Comrade Kevin

Former Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III is the third in an impressive line of well-regarded public servants. His famous father, Adlai Stevenson II, is beloved by many for his witty quips and literate analysis, both of which are regularly cited to this day. Adlai II stood as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President on two separate occasions, then bolstered his historical reputation further as Ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Great-Grandfather Adlai Stevenson I served one term as Vice President under Grover Cleveland and ran once more for the same office on the same ticket as Populist orator William Jennings Bryan.

I spoke with Senator Stevenson at length recently. Our talk touched on many topics, but the most compelling of these regards the need for transparency in government. Last year’s heavily contentious Health Care Reform debate brought the issue of sunshine laws and their ilk to the forefront. Candidate Obama called for a comprehensive end to closed-door deliberations that left the American people out in the cold. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was routinely criticized for perceived hypocrisy by relying heavily on secrecy in particularly sensitive Congressional deliberations.

Many of the more controversial backroom deals in that agonizing process, such as the so-called Louisiana Purchase and Cornhusker Kickback, were conducted in ways that would seem to defy the stated wishes of the President and the American People. In response, the media cried foul, the Republican Party expressed indignation, and so did many private citizens. What could be less democratic than a return to the smoke-filled rooms of days gone by?

Senator Stevenson holds a surprising opinion on this topic. When I interviewed him, he expressed deep regret that he himself had pushed for government transparency in the early 1970’s while a member of the Senate. A reformer by nature, Stevenson once championed open congressional communication in all forms. In his recently published memoir/political commentary, entitled The Black Book, Stevenson speaks of precisely why he has come to reverse himself with time. “Our efforts to make the democratic process more democratic,” he notes with regret, "made it more plutocratic.”

The Illinois Senator has, late in life, instead become a believer in the old system. On the subject of selecting a Democratic nominee for President, party insiders, not primary and caucus voters selected candidates. He adds that his father was deeply reluctant to run for President in 1952, but felt that he must do so to fulfill his duty to the nation and the party. In those days, the primary system was embryonic compared to the way it is now. Democratic Party insiders believed that the candidate who had achieved the most primary wins, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, simply could not win the General Election. Based on their judgment, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II was substituted instead. Sixty years later, his son calls for a return to strongly centralized party organization and even pines for the existence of the well-oiled political machines so despised in their day.

In The Black Book, the Senator devotes a full chapter to this idea.

“Senators... retreated behind closed doors to draft legislation in mark up sessions and represent[ed] the public interest with impunity, as the founders did at the Constitutional Convention. We opened the doors. Senators then retreated to closed Conference Committee meetings to reconcile legislation passed by both Houses. [They] represent[ed] the common interest by removing concessions adopted in public for grateful supplicants and constituents, knowing they would disappear in secret.

When their doors were opened, Senators had nowhere remaining to represent the public interest without fear of retribution from interest groups.”

As Stevenson sees it, open government means open opportunities for money to dominate. Ironically, all of these reform measures were adopted, as he states, “in the name of more democracy”. Recently, we’ve seen a variation of this argument which began when the Supreme Court struck down key portions of the McCain/Feingold Act early last year. Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee has only increased the proliferation of money and financial interests into the political process, factors which, according to Senator Stevenson, continue to create corruption and dysfunction.

“We opened up the legislative process," he writes, “increased the staffing and, in redistributing power, broadly left it vulnerable to pressures at many more points from think tanks, industry, financial, and farm groups, environmentalists, gun control, and abortion advocates, religionists, and advocacy groups of all kinds. [All of these] proliferated to take advantage of reform and the mounting vulnerability of the politicians.

The unintended results were due in part to the new mass media which took advantage of the reforms, [opting] to be adversarial and superficial instead of availing the public of its new access to political process and politicians, as we reformers had naively expected.”

In effect, Pandora’s Box was opened, and we are still dealing with the consequences. I began our interview asking Stevenson how he thought we might correct it. His opinion was that, in part, we needed to encourage people to take a more active role in civic affairs and government. He mentioned that his wife, like so many, felt so inspired by the Obama 2008 campaign that she volunteered for direct service. Now, from the vantage point of two years, the Obama Presidency has failed to impress, but neither should we forget the feelings of unity in common purpose. To Stevenson, this is the true definition of democracy. When we designate other people to stand in for our own self-interest, problems are not far away.

As I conclude, reflecting upon the Senator's remarks, a time-honored phrase comes to mind. “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.”


*To purchase The Black Book, please follow this link.

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