Adlai E. Stevenson III, a scion of generations of Illinois Democrats, who shared the names and presidential ambitions of his father and great-grandfather but not their political successes, serving a decade in the Senate and losing two races for governor, died Monday at his home in Chicago. He was 90.
The cause of death was Lewy body disease, his wife, Nancy Anderson, said Tuesday.
In a family with a bad case of hereditary politics, as his father once put it, Mr. Stevenson hardly rivaled the original Adlai E. Stevenson, Grover Cleveland’s 1890s vice president, or Adlai E. Stevenson II, the eloquent Illinois governor (1949-53) who won his party’s presidential nominations in 1952 and 1956 but lost the White House both times to the Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The third man with the storied name rose in Illinois politics as a legislator and state treasurer in the 1960s, and in 1970 — with the advantages of name recognition, a reputation for independence, and the lukewarm endorsement of the state’s boss of bosses, Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago — he swept a special election to succeed Senator Everett Dirksen, who had died in office.
“It was ordained at birth that I would go into a life of public service,” Mr. Stevenson said shortly after his election. “The question was never ‘whether’ — it was always ‘when’ and ‘how.’ ”
With the nation sharply divided over the war in Vietnam, Mr. Stevenson, a liberal reformer who had condemned President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Indochina policies and the violent police tactics at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, renewed his attacks on President Nixon’s prosecution of the war.
As the Watergate scandal deepened in 1973, Mr. Stevenson called on Nixon to answer for the integrity of the country’s leaders. “All of us — Republicans and Democrats — have an interest in clearing the record,” he said a year before Nixon resigned in disgrace. “The faith of the people in their system and their leaders — a faith that has already been shaken enough — is at stake.”
After serving out the remaining four years of Dirksen’s unexpired term, Mr. Stevenson was reelected by a landslide in 1974 to a full six-year term.
Talk of a Stevenson run for the presidency in 1976 soon began, fueled by Daley, who resented the senator’s liberal reforms but who knew a vote-getter when he saw one. The senator declined to campaign, but as the nominating process got underway, Daley forces ran him as a favorite son candidate.
When former governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia locked up the nomination before the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York, Mr. Stevenson threw in the towel. Carter went on to defeat the Republican incumbent, Gerald R. Ford.
But with the Carter presidency struggling with soaring inflation and later the protracted Iranian hostage crisis, Mr. Stevenson, in 1979, toyed again with seeking the 1980 Democratic nomination, saying he was disappointed with Carter’s performance and by the caliber of the president’s potential Democratic challengers. He decided not to run for a third Senate term, clearing the way for a campaign.
The effort fizzled. He taped television spots to talk about issues and said he would be open to a draft of his nomination. But he refused to enter the Democratic primaries.
“It’s not the kind of contest I could win,” he told United Press International months before the primaries began. “The chemistry is all wrong, down to and including the cosmetics. It just doesn’t fit.”
It was a remarkable concession, not only because it virtually ruled out his own presidential possibilities, but also because of its dead-on self-assessment: The son was not the father, and never would be.
They resembled each other, however: tall and elegant, with the air of aristocrats standing above the political fray. Both were balding and metaphorical eggheads with Harvard Law degrees.
But the son could not replicate the charm of a presidential hopeful famously pictured with a hole in his shoe, nor hope to match his father’s soaring rhetoric at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1952, when he asked Americans for “sacrifice, patience, understanding,” or his father’s electrifying the world in 1962 when he rebuked the Soviet Union at the United Nations during the Cuban missile crisis, accusing it of threatening humanity with thermonuclear catastrophe.
Mr. Stevenson left the Senate in 1981, just as Carter was vacating the White House after Ronald Reagan had denied him reelection. But Mr. Stevenson had two last hurrahs: runs for governor of Illinois against an entrenched Republican, James R. Thompson, whose four consecutive terms made him the state’s longest-serving governor.
In 1982, Mr. Stevenson lost to Thompson, who was known as Big Jim, by 5,074 votes out of 3.6 million cast, making it the closest gubernatorial election in state history.
A 1986 rematch was expected to be almost as close. But in the state Democratic primary, which Mr. Stevenson won easily, his ticket was hamstrung when two supporters of the far-right ideologue, Lyndon LaRouche Jr., won the party’s nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. Rejecting what he called their “neo-Nazi” platform, which favored AIDS testing for all Americans, Mr. Stevenson refused to appear on their ticket, organized the Solidarity Party, and lost the election to Thompson.
It ended his active political career.
Adlai Ewing Stevenson III was born in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1930, the oldest of three sons of Adlai Ewing Stevenson II and the former Ellen Borden. Adlai and his brothers, Borden and John, grew up in an intellectual home. Their parents spoke only French at the dinner table, and afterward their father read aloud to them from literary classics for an hour each evening. Getaways were fishing trips and visits to the family farm at Libertyville, Ill.
Moving where his father’s political career took the family, Mr. Stevenson attended five grade and preparatory schools, including public schools in Lake Forest, Ill., and Harrow in England, when his father worked there with a UN group, and Milton Academy, from which he graduated in 1948. (Edward M. Kennedy, who was about 16 months younger than Mr. Stevenson, was a schoolmate.)
After earning a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard in 1952, he joined the Marine Corps, attended Officer Candidate School and arrived in Korea with a tank unit just after the truce in 1953. He mustered out as a first lieutenant in 1954.
In 1955, he married Nancy Anderson. They had four children: Adlai Ewing IV, Lucy, Katherine, and Warwick. In addition to his wife, his children, and his brothers John and Borden, Mr. Stevenson leaves at least nine grandchildren.
Mr. Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law School in 1957, and after serving as a law clerk for an Illinois Supreme Court justice in 1958, joined and later became a partner in a prestigious Chicago law firm, Mayer, Brown & Platt.
His political career began in 1964. Elected to a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives, he sponsored 84 bills in two years, including measures to control lobbying and conflicts of interest in government, a graduated state income tax, and credit reforms. The Independent Voters of Illinois named him the House’s “best legislator.”
From 1967 to 1970, he was the elected Illinois state treasurer. In what might have been a routine post, he eliminated staff patronage, withdrew state funds from banks that practiced racial or religious discrimination, and put money in Black-owned banks to finance small business, low-income housing, and urban development.
After quitting active politics in 1986, Mr. Stevenson resumed practicing law, but in the 1990s he became president of SC&M Investment Management and later a co-founder of HuaMei Capital, both specializing in financial transactions between America and East Asia.
In 2008, Mr. Stevenson published “The Black Book,” a history, begun as a scrapbook, of five generations of his family. Besides the three Adlais, it covered his great-great-grandfather, Jesse Fell, a patron of Abraham Lincoln, and his grandfather, Lewis Stevenson, an Illinois secretary of state, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1928.
Mr. Stevenson, who lived in Chicago, said in a 2017 interview for this obituary that his family political dynasty was almost certainly finished. His son Adlai IV is a businessman and former media reporter in Chicago. A grandson, Adlai V, born in 1994, is “a computer whiz,” his grandfather said.
“Neither one has shown much interest in politics,” he added.