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Would you vote for a man with a hole in his shoe?

 In 1952, following President Truman’s decision not to seek another term in office, there was an open seat for the presidency, and it was hotly contested.  The campaign of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican nominee, was doing well at defining the Democratic nominee, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II.  Stevenson came from a wealthy background and had the air of an intellectual—and he was one.  Eisenhower’s allies in politics and the press exploited this, since intellectuals rarely fare well in American politics.  They dubbed him “Egghead”, taking the positive of intellect and turning it into a negative, with the added benefit of making fun of the governor’s baldness.  Eisenhower himself didn’t have much hair, either, but somehow such superficial attacks didn’t stick to the popular general.

On Labor Day, with two months to go in the presidential election, Stevenson had some unexpected luck.  While preparing for a speech in Flint, Michigan, photographer Bill Gallagher, who had a reputation for snapping pictures with a comedic flare to them, noticed Governor Stevenson had a hole in his shoe when he crossed his legs.  Gallagher disconnected the flash bulb from his camera so he wouldn’t attract too much attention to himself and he captured the governor, and his sole, and its hole.

Adlai Stevenson and the shoe that rocked the 1952 campaign.

Stevenson briefly glanced over at Gallagher when he heard the camera snap, and then went back to work, unaware that one of America’s most infamous political photographs had just been taken.  The photo of Stevenson and his shoe was a sensation, probably interesting because it clashed with the governor’s cultivated reputation.  His campaign knew it had something, and used this to promote the candidate as a hard-working man of the people.  While campaigning, Stevenson was typically well dressed, presumably with the intent to make a good impression on voters, but that wasn’t his style.  As the New York Times described Stevenson’s attire in their obituary for him on July 15, 1965,

“Mr. Stevenson, although he dressed well, was not happy as a fashion plate. As Governor of Illinois he preferred to work in his office in a brown tweed sports jacket, odd trousers and a striped shirt. His favorite footgear then was a pair of old golf shoes with the spikes removed.

His predilection for informal attire was not only a matter of personal comfort, but also an expression of the fact that, although he was well-to-do, he was not a conspicuous spender.”

The Stevenson campaign adopted the shoe with a hole in it as a campaign symbol.  Stevenson himself, famous for his witty one-liners, said, “Better a hole in the shoe than a hole in the head.”  The campaign handed out pins in the shape of shoes, with a visible hole in the sole.

A hole-in-the-sole pin from the 1952 campaign

Stevenson didn’t win in 1952, nor did he win when he ran again in 1956, and lost to Eisenhower again.  He tried to win the Democratic nomination a third time in 1960, but was defeated by John F. Kennedy, who went on to get elected president that year.  Despite these losses, Stevenson was not bitter, and in his concession speech urged his supporters to “be of good cheer”.  After losing the nomination to Kennedy, Stevenson took the post of the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, where he worked for the last five years of his life.

For years, pundits would wonder aloud, “Can a divorced man ever win the presidency?”  Stevenson and his wife had divorced in 1949, though this was never used very much against him in his campaigns.  (Had the campaigns against Eisenhower been closer, who knows if they would have gone there?)  This question was academic until 1980, when Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA) became the first divorcé to be elected president.  The only other divorced presidential nominees have been Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in 2004 and TV star Donald Trump (R-NY) in 2016.  Divorce doesn’t hold the same social stigma it once did, so it’s unlikely it will harm or be much remarked on in future elections.  Stevenson himself never remarried.  With his career as demanding as it was, he probably didn’t even find time to date.  As Stevenson himself once remarked, “Via ovacipitum dura est,” which is Latin for, “The way of the egghead is hard.”

I’ll leave you with a couple of campaign ads from the 1952 election.  The first one is for Stevenson, a jazzy pop song sung by a cute singer.  Note how she gives a little wink to the camera at around the 20-second mark.  Also note the first line of the song: “I’d rather have a man with a hole in his shoe than a hole in everything he says.”  That shoe business was a big deal.

"I Love the Guv" ad for Stevenson, 1952

For balance, here’s an Eisenhower ad from that same campaign.  The Eisenhower campaign had a better grasp on how to use television to its advantage than Stevenson’s did.  This ad might seem hokey today, but it was very much in step with what you’d see in TV commercials those days. A jingle like this might be used to sell soap or cigarettes or any other commercial product you’d see advertised on TV.

"I Like Ike" ad from 1952


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