Web Exclusives: Rally 'Round the Cannon -- Princeton history
by Gregg Lange '70

February 13, 2008:

Aiming for the White House
Some memorable, though unsuccessful, campaigns by Princetonians

By Gregg Lange ’70

The current energetic campaigning of Michelle Robinson Obama ’85 on behalf of her husband brings to mind other presidential contests in which Princetonians have played a significant part. While we tend to focus on the winners – wow, there’s a real American trait for you – and so lionize Little Jimmy Madison 1771 and professorial Tommy Wilson 1879, the unsuccessful candidates were perhaps a more interesting bunch. And one, a student of Wilson’s who never received even a million votes, was perhaps the greatest of all.

In looking back at the intriguing Tigers besides Wilson who got into the presidential derby in the 20th century, I’m going to take some severe poetic license and assume those of you who have the clever wherewithal to find us here at Virtual History Central also have enough wits to still recall the election campaign of 2000. Perhaps even more than some members of the Supreme Court we could cite. Anyhow, this annus bizzaris was the point of confluence for three very different, very accomplished, and very well known Princetonians: Ralph Nader ’55, Bill Bradley ’65, and Steve Forbes ’70. Each was famed in his own sphere beyond politics – Bradley as the quintessential scholar/athlete, Forbes as the econ wonk/eponymous editor, Nader as … well, as the one-and-only Ralph Nader. It will be a while yet before the history of that race will be settled (Nader’s role being a pointed example), so we’ll leave well enough alone and turn to the three other candidates from earlier in the century who carried the orange and black with them into the fray.

The only one to gain the nomination of one of the two major parties was a man who came to political fruition at exactly the wrong time. Adlai Stevenson ’22 was nominated by the Democrats to run against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 – as high up on the thankless-task hierarchy as you might care to go. A reformer from Illinois, he was paradoxically known for both folksiness and intellect, probably best captured in his apocryphal response to the campaign toady who assured him that he was the candidate of every thinking man in the country: “Thank you, but I need a majority to win.” The photo of him on the 1952 campaign trail with a humanizing hole in his shoe became iconic. From a newspaper family, and the former managing editor of The Daily Princetonian, he used words like jewels both in his public life …


“When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an hour of history haunted with those gaunt, grim specters of strife, dissension, and materialism at home, and ruthless, inscrutable, and hostile power abroad.”

… and in the warmth of Princeton, as in his remarks to the Class of 1954 noted on the quotation wall at Frist Campus Center:


“Before you leave, remember why you came.”

Our other two standard-bearers crossed paths in the election of 1932, an American turning point that seems to retain its import despite each succeeding quadrennial circus. The Depression and the government’s blatant inability to address it in a meaningful way set the stage for a basic reconsideration of the American experiment and the validity of the Constitution. Some modest state programs had been conducted in Ohio over the previous few years, and its progressive governor, George White 1895, was put forth as a favorite son at the Democratic convention before FDR’s bandwagon took over on the fourth ballot. Having initially made his fortune prospecting for gold in the Klondike (let’s assume that was unusual for a Princeton man), White had an affinity for the worker, which eventually got him into hot water and voted out in 1934.


Adlai Stevenson ’22

This statue of Adlai Stevenson ’22 in the Bloomington (Ill.) Airport depicts him waiting for a campaign flight with the famous hole in his shoe.

Which leads us to the great Norman Thomas 1905. The intellectual heavyweight of this group, he was valedictorian and a fearsome debater as an undergrad. He became a Presbyterian minister in the historical Princeton tradition, but took a quick left turn and by 1917 he was banned from the campus by President John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893 (also a valedictorian and Presbyterian minister) for his unrelenting pacifist stance in World War I. In 1926, Thomas inherited the leadership of the Socialist Party from Eugene Debs, and he ran on its ticket for president in the next six national elections. His high-water mark came in roiling 1932 – no surprise – with 885,000 votes, more than 2 percent of the national turnout. That was also the year the very same Hibben awarded him an honorary doctorate as “a fearless and upright advocate of change in the social order.” My, how times change. It was Thomas’ fate to become better known and respected as his movement waned, but his uncompromising integrity – he espoused the same labor rights that got White voted out, he detested the segregation of Princeton, he attacked the ACLU for supporting the Japanese-American internment in World War II, he railed against Soviet communism – was his hallmark to his classmates, many of whom respected him as their de facto leader while disagreeing with him on every imaginable political issue. He returned to campus whenever he could and was addicted to Reunions. Also on the wall at Frist is his reflection:


“Love for Princeton – as for our country – does not blind us to imperfections.”

What are we to make of these vividly various and singular folks? One flip answer, in the best traditions of intellectual inquiry, might be: “a University.” I’ve always found it very comforting that one of the centerpieces of the Steve Forbes ’70 College is the Norman Thomas 1905 Library. P

Lange '70Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.