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Presidential Race Evokes Memories of 1952 Contest

We are often reminded that this year’s presidential election will be the first in 56 years with no sitting president or vice president on the ballot. That merely skims the surface of similarities with 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower (New York by way of Texas, Kansas and Europe) faced Democrat Adlai Stevenson (Illinois by way of L.A.) for the presidency.

[IMGCAP(1)]Eisenhower, like this year’s presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain (Arizona by way of the Panama Canal Zone and Hanoi Hilton), first made a name for himself as a military man. A 1915 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Eisenhower capped his four-decade military career as the victorious supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II. He returned to civilian life as president of Columbia University (1948-53) — except for interim service as NATO commander.

McCain, a 1958 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., was a naval pilot, shot down over North Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years. After retiring from the military, he ran for Congress in 1982, serving four years in the House and 22 years in the Senate. In Congress he has developed a reputation as a maverick and reformer.

The presumptive Democratic nominee this year, Sen. Barack Obama (Illinois by way of Kansas and Hawaii), shares with his 1952 Democratic counterpart the same state political base, Harvard law training and gift for oratory. Stevenson was concluding his first term as governor of Illinois at the time of the 1952 Chicago convention. Obama enters his party’s convention in Denver in his fourth year as junior Senator from Illinois after eight years in the state Senate. Obama first burst onto the national scene with an uplifting keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Stevenson’s biggest rival for the 1952 nomination was Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.), a first-term Senator who previously served 10 years in the House. Kefauver had already made a name for himself in the Senate with his well-publicized hearings into organized crime in 1950-51. His Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce held hearings in 14 cities over 15 months — the first televised hearings of their kind. The hearings catapulted him to national attention and into the 1952 presidential campaign.

Kefauver, campaigning with his trademark coonskin cap, captured more primaries and votes than Stevenson (who was not a declared presidential candidate), but was still short of the majority of delegates needed going into the convention. Party bosses blocked Kefauver’s nomination, and Stevenson became the convention’s draft choice on the third ballot, propelled in part by a rousing welcoming speech on opening night. (That was the last time a presidential nomination went more than a single ballot.) Stevenson picked Sen. John Sparkman (D-Ala.) as his running mate for regional unity but still won only nine states with 89 electoral votes compared with the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket’s capture of 39 states with 442 electoral votes.

Much has been written about why Stevenson fared so poorly as the Democratic nominee in 1952. Many attribute it to the mood of the country. With the U.S. mired in an unpopular and undeclared war in Korea, public approval of the Truman administration was at an all-time low. The Democratic platform’s only reference to the Korean War appeared under the plank “Supporting the United Nations,” noting that “The communist aggressor has been hurled back from South Korea” by U.N. forces.

The Republican platform, on the other hand, charged that the Democrats “have plunged us into a war in Korea without the consent of our citizens through their authorized representatives in the Congress, and have carried on that war without will to victory.” That plank reflected the ambivalence and struggle within the party over the future U.S. role in the world.

The leading contender going into the convention, Sen. Robert Taft (Ohio), was an isolationist. Eisenhower was persuaded to run because he believed internationalism, not isolationism, was the best course for the country. After capturing the nomination on the first ballot, Eisenhower ran on the slogan “peace and prosperity” — something Americans yearned for after a depression and two wars. “I will go to Korea,” Eisenhower pledged, and Americans responded, “We like Ike.”

Stevenson, who had played a part in the creation of the United Nations, was also an internationalist. While erudite and humorous, he was perceived as an intellectual — an “egg-head,” as one columnist dubbed him — who could not relate to average Americans. Yet, as journalist Theodore H. White later wrote, Stevenson was “the John-the-Baptist of American politics” because “he changed the whole tone. … Young people across America responded to Stevenson in 1952 and this has affected them ever since.”

One should not strain too much at comparing 2008 to 1952. True, today we again have a Republican nominee with a military background up against an eloquent and highly intelligent Illinois Democrat with youth appeal. Both candidates are internationalists with slightly different approaches to how the United States should re-engage the world. Both could comfortably run under a “peace and prosperity” banner, though with different views on the proper government role in domestic problem-solving.

This time around, though, it is the Republican nominee who is associated with an unpopular administration and war, and the Democratic nominee who promises to end the war and change course. As Yogi Berra might put it, “History doesn’t happen like it used to.”

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.