Asking Adlai about agriculture meant a harvest of silence

Adlai Stevenson, twice unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president of the United States and distinguished United Nations ambassador, once — probably unintentionally — managed to make a Grand Junction press conference fall apart.

Stevenson was renowned for his biting wit and stylish bon mots, but he could also be sarcastic when he thought somebody had asked a question he deemed beneath his dignity.

Stevenson’s specialty, of which he was extremely proud, was his knowledge of foreign affairs, and he had run his presidential campaigns touting that expertise. He considered himself an outstanding statesman, and his advocates agreed with him. He was a skilled orator, who mouthed eminently quotable replies to journalists’ questions,

When Stevenson came to Grand Junction to speak in the late 1950s, he was actually between political jobs. He had lost presidential races in 1952 and 1956 against immensely popular Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. And he had yet to be named United Nations ambassador by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

The Daily Sentinel’s city editor, trying for a new angle to a story, decided that he should be questioned about the nation’s agricultural policies. The editor, Alan Pritchard, planned to make the press conference a Page One story about Stevenson, based on the fact that this was a different angle for a Stevenson interview. The advertised speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Democratic dinner was sure to be about foreign affairs, and it was to be a secondary story placed somewhere vague on an inside page.

I was covering Stevenson’s dinner speech. But one of the male reporters was slated to cover Stevenson’s airport arrival, his ride to downtown Grand Junction and the news conference. I was somewhat annoyed because I thought the whole event belonged in one story. However, I was at the airport for Stevenson’s arrival and would be at the news conference because Tommy Neal of Congressman Wayne Aspinall’s staff was coordinating the Stevenson appearance. He had designated me a “special representative,” accrediting me for the entire visit. Thus, I had been with Sheriff Ray Reese in the car immediately behind Stevenson’s conveyance from the airport to his motel, in case anything newsworthy happened en route, while the other reporter was several cars behind.

I don’t recall any television cameras, but radio and weekly newspaper personnel were represented in the parking lot of the old La Court Motel at Second Street and Colorado Avenue when Stevenson emerged from his room into the dark evening for the press conference.

Sentinel reporter Jack Kisling, who later became a Denver Post columnist and author of at least one novel, posed his question about agricultural policy. Stevenson looked at Kisling, pulled himself up to his full height (which wasn’t that impressive) and said icily: “I have no idea. Why don’t you ask the Secretary of Agriculture?”

Silence ensued. The other newspaper and radio reporters seemed tongue-tied. Even Kisling, who was no slouch as a reporter, looked a little rattled. We were used to politicians who either faked it or talked around the question when they didn’t know the answer.

Finally, from deep in my memory, I pulled a few tatters of an article Stevenson had written for the magazine, Foreign Affairs, a couple of months before. I had reviewed the article several days earlier as background for his speech.

When my mind came back to the news conference, there was still dead silence. I quickly asked something vague, such as if he still agreed with the position he had taken in the article, and Stevenson was on familiar ground. He immediately became again his charming, witty self.

Stevenson was something of a wordy guy, secure in his knowledge of world affairs, and he gave a lengthy answer. The important thing was that communication was flowing again. While probably none of us understood what he was explaining, the dreadful press conference had achieved some measure of normalcy.

Curious and secretly amused at how the disastrous event might be played, I looked in vain for a story about the news conference in the pages of The Daily Sentinel the next day. Since I had not been assigned to cover it, I certainly hadn’t taken any notes, and I guess Kisling and Pritchard decided there was nothing to report.

There was no mention of the press conference anywhere in the newspaper. The speech story appeared on an inside page, and it was pretty well buried. And, since nobody had tried to assassinate Stevenson, there was no news from that angle.

I later came to the conclusion that Stevenson’s appearance in Grand Junction may have been notable mostly for the fact that he received less press coverage than any other major politician visiting Grand Junction that year.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.


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