Amtraks Across America: the Many Adlai Stevensons

This is the ninth part in a series about Amtrak travels during summer 2022.


On the City of New Orleans to Chicago: “Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son….” Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

The semester was ending at Champaign-Urbana, as the train filled up with students dragging large duffel bags and backpacks, not to mention iced coffees topped with straws.

I used the occasion of the stop to walk forward to the lounge car and buy an egg sandwich that the attendant heated in a microwave, which caused the cheese to explode against the plastic wrapper. So much for my dream of scrambled eggs in the dining car as the “train pulls out at Kanakee.”

It took the City of New Orleans three hours to cover the 129 miles between Champaign-Urbana and Chicago. (For those keeping score at home, that’s an average speed of 43 m.p.h.) The real creeping happens in the last 24 miles between Homewood and Chicago, where the train’s average speed drops below 20 m.p.h., as if it is conveying its passengers to a South Side stockyard (even though the last one closed in 1971).

Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge

Some of my traveling luck changed at Union Station Chicago. After I walked around in a daze looking for a place to check my luggage, I discovered that for $35 I could buy my way into Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge, which has showers, wifi, comfortable chairs, luggage racks, and snacks (belonging to what the columnist Dave Barry calls “the potato chip food group”).

After a day and a night encamped on musty Amtrak, the hot shower was a delight, and after checking my emails and storing my luggage (by now bulging with books about New Orleans), I headed to brunch with friends and to pay my respects to Adlai Stevenson III, who had died since I last passed through Chicago. (He liked to say we were related “somehow”, but the real relation was that of friendship.)

A Political Family

Adlai III (known to his family and friends as “Ad”) was the son of Adlai Stevenson II, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, who was referred to as “the Gov”, as he was governor of Illinois from 1949 – 53. Ad served both in Illinois state government and later, from 1970 to 1981, as a U.S. senator from Illinois.

The first Adlai Stevenson was vice-president of the United States under President Grover Cleveland from 1893-97. Ad liked to joke that his only achievement in high office was to replace 4,000 Republican postmasters across the country with 4,000 Democrats.

Ad lived a productive and long life, and died peacefully at home at age 90 in 2021. (He was also descended from Jesse W. Fell, who helped to arrange the Lincoln-Douglas debates.) After the Senate, he worked as a lawyer and in business, with particular emphasis on China, where he developed a wide network of friends and admirers. It showed the forgiving side of his personality, as during the Korean War he was a United States Marine Corps tank commander.

For me the pleasure of Ad’s company—he loved the cocktail hour at his townhouse in Lincoln Park—was that he was a personal link to what the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter called “the American political tradition.” He was close to his father, the Gov, and saw firsthand two presidential campaigns. (The Gov lost to Dwight Eisenhower, as would any Democrat in a postwar election involving a five-star general.)

Ad also met and knew the entire generation of politicians in the late 20th century. During the course of an evening, he was happy to share his impressions of the Kennedys, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, Mayor Richard Daley, Eugene McCarthy, Joe Biden, and others.

The 1960 Presidential Election

More than once, at my prompting, he told me the story of the 1960 presidential election, in which his father, the Gov, hoped that the Democratic convention in Los Angeles might deadlock and choose him again as the nominee over the frontrunner, John F. Kennedy.

According to the son, the Gov and Kennedy had a good relationship, based on mutual respect and shared political values. The Gov regretted that he had not been more forceful at the 1956 convention, when Kennedy hoped to run as vice-president alongside Stevenson in that election. Instead the Gov let the convention pick his running mate, and it chose Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who proved a dreary campaigner and a drag on the ticket.

In 1960, Kennedy wanted to trade Stevenson the position of Secretary of State in exchange for his endorsement—and withdrawal from the race. It was never quite clear to me how specific the negotiations between the two men got, but heading to Los Angeles, Stevenson remained uncommitted (holding out hope for the nomination at a deadlocked convention).

After he got the nomination without Stevenson’s endorsement, Kennedy felt under no obligation to promise him the State Department, which went to Dean Rusk, a bureaucrat happy to do the president’s bidding (which later included sending 16,000 American soldiers to South Vietnam).

In the end the Gov was given the ambassadorship to the United Nations—an important job, especially in the Cold War of the early 1960s, but one that did not interest him, as it was distant from Washington’s halls of power.

Robert Kennedy: The Black Prince

Part of the strains between Kennedy and Stevenson arose from the prickly personality of Robert Kennedy, who never warmed to the more cerebral and outgoing Gov, finding him diffident in a “can-do” age. In 1956, Bobby had even voted for Eisenhower. In turn, the Gov found the First Brother brooding and dour, and nicknamed him The Black Prince.

During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby was all for “relieving” Stevenson of his ambassadorship at the United Nations, unless he could prove his mettle in confronting the Russian ambassador, Valerian Zorin. It was then that Stevenson scored his rhetorical ace against the Russian, in asking point blank whether the Soviet Union had offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba.

When the Russian ambassador said he was not a defendant on a witness stand, Ambassador Stevenson said he was a defendant “in the court of public opinion,” and that if he did not answer the question then and there, Stevenson was prepared to wait “until hell freezes over” for the Russian answer.

Adlai III’s Integrity

I never met the Gov, so I cannot say how his personality was different from his son’s, but Ad certainly had his father’s gift of friendship as well as a strong sense of integrity.

In 1982, he was well on his way to election as governor of Illinois, when followers of Lyndon Larouche—an activist of the far left and right, depending on the time in his career—hijacked the Democratic gubernatorial ticket and inserted several of their candidates on the Democratic ballot, to run alongside Stevenson for governor.

Although the front runner, Ad refused to drag along a Larouche lieutenant governor and secretary of state to the state capital in Springfield, and ended up running, and losing, as a write-in third party candidate, albeit one who was free of Larouche and his neo-Nazi associations.

My only personal brush with Ad’s integrity came when I interviewed him for radio. In the course of a conversation about his political ancestors, he spoke at some length about his own mother’s mental instabilities. In short, divorced from the Gov in 1949, as he became governor, she was volatile and unstable, and in the late 1950s and 60s had a habit of scaring Ad’s then-young children.

Ad was matter-of-fact when talking about her split personality, which obviously made him sad. Later when I listened to the tape, I decided to call him and ask him if he wanted to me to delete the material about his mother. He reflected for a while and then said: “No, you should keep it. It is what happened; it’s true.”

Downtown Chicago

I have always liked Chicago. After my Stevenson brunch, my walk down Michigan Avenue and across the Loop back to Union Station reminded me of several childhood summers in the 1960s, when I went there with my father. He had business; I stayed with family friends in Winnetka, played baseball in the local park, and swam in Lake Michigan.

In summer 1965 our family took a succession of Great Lakes steamers (some were fairly old, including the S.S. Assiniboia, which was build in 1908 for the Canadian Pacific Railway) from Buffalo to Sault Ste. Marie at the mouth of Lake Superior, which included a long traverse of Lake Huron to the Upper Peninsula.

None of my friends could quite believe it when I got back to school in the fall and wrote as essay about spending part of my summer vacation in downtown Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland, which in the 1960s suggested coming violence.

The Lake Shore Limited to New York

Before Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited departed for New York, I idled in the Metropolitan Lounge and wandered around the Loop in search of food provisions for the overnight ride; I didn’t want to be caught short dining on hot dogs and Sprite.

Carrying a shopping bag of staples on to the train reminded me of some long rail journeys in Africa, although at least there, on most platforms, there are hawkers selling bananas and other fruits from baskets balanced on their heads.

Because it was a Friday night in the great post-pandemic springtime release, the train to New York was full, and my seatmate, in addition to a steady conversation that he kept up with himself, sat down with two large pillows, as if this were a slumber party.

He wanted the window seat (to which I was assigned). When I said no to the proposed exchange, he flagged down the conductor and demanded another seat, which left the seat next to me empty. It improved my mood, although perhaps not the quality of my contorted sleep.

A Long Night in a Short Seat

For some reason a ceiling spotlight had to shine on our end of the car, which bathed the coach a prison-yard, klieg glare throughout the night. I contrived to make a blinder from the hoodie of my anorak and somehow managed to sleep until Cleveland, where we arrived at dawn’s early light around 6 a.m.

The last time I was in Cleveland on Amtrak, the train was nine hours late. The reason was never given over the loudspeaker, although the smart money in my car said that thieves had climbed up some signal towers and stolen the copper wire, which has demand in secondary markets.

The Lake Shore Limited stopped in Buffalo around 9 a.m. It was the same day as a deadly store shooting there, but that happened in the afternoon, in a residential neighborhood northeast of downtown.

I once went through that same area on my bicycle, and as I was waiting at a traffic light, someone came up to me and said, “Give me that fucking bike,” which prompted me to jump the red light and—as they say in the Tour de France—to “push the big gear”.

It should not have taken the Lake Shore Limited all day to go between Buffalo and New York’s Moynihan Train Hall, but it did, in meandering Amtrak fashion. I did enjoy my glimpses of the Erie Canal and later the Hudson River, but I didn’t need the ninety-minute layover (for no apparent reason) in Albany-Rensselaer, which turned an already long journey into something approaching water torture (provided you can accomplish that with orange soda).

The scheduled train journey from Chicago to New York City takes five more hours in 2023 than it did in 1947, which explains why, beyond the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak operates for the leisure class.

Next: New York City and New England. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.