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Professor's biography chronicles Harold Stassen's highs, lows

August 21, 2013

The fact that Stassen ran for president 10 times and lost 10 times — the last at age 85 in 1992— and became the butt of political jokes didn't lessen Alec Kirby's fascination with him.

Kirby, an associate professor of social science at University of Wisconsin-Stout, is familiar with a much more successful and complex Stassen, the younger man who was the "boy wonder" governor of Minnesota, was a serious presidential contender midcentury and who served ably in the Eisenhower administration for five years.

The cover of Kirby covered it all — the good, bad and ugly — when he wrote the first biography ever published about Stassen, "Harold E. Stassen: The Life and Perennial Candidacy of the Progressive Republican," by McFarland & Company publishers.

The 235-page book officially came out earlier this year, although it was available late 2012. The first printing sold out in a month. It already is in its fourth printing and has garnered several positive reviews, proving correct Kirby's belief that Stassen had political gravitas and was worthy of a full-length study despite his character flaws.

"I wanted to place him where he belongs — at the epicenter of 20th century politics and government — and tell the story of Stassen as a remarkable man of great courage," Kirby said. "His record cried out for a biography. The reaction to the book confirms it. It's very gratifying."

Kirby did the bulk of the writing, although he is listed as a co-author. David Dalin and John Rothmann contributed to the manuscript, Kirby said. Dalin teaches at Ave Maria University in Florida and Rothmann at the University of San Francisco.

The foreword was written by Lewis Gould, a University of Texas professor and leading presidential scholar. Gould said the book has done Stassen "the justice that his life in politics merited" and credited the authors with uncovering new material about Thomas Dewey, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower.

A rising star

The precocious Stassen, a West St. Paul native, graduated from high school at age 14, simultaneously earned bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Minnesota and, at age 31 in 1938, was elected governor of Minnesota. He still is the youngest governor ever elected in the U.S.

Stassen was an important figure in U.S. politics for the next 20-plus years. After being re-elected Minnesota governor in 1940 and 1942 he resigned in 1943 to serve in World War II on Admiral William Halsey's staff in the Pacific.

Stassen was chosen by President Franklin Roosevelt as a delegate to the U.N. charter conference in 1945 and became one of eight Americans to sign the U.S. charter to the U.N.

Alec KirbyIn 1948 Stassen was a serious contender for the presidency — he made the cover of Life magazine March 1 — but lost to Dewey in a critical Oregon primary and wound up losing the GOP nomination. Stassen changed presidential campaigns, however, with his innovative strategy to focus on winning state primaries as opposed to the then-traditional method of currying favor with party leaders. Today, the primary system rules.

In 1953, after releasing his delegates to help Eisenhower get elected, Stassen joined Eisenhower's Cabinet. Stassen's career peaked in 1958, when he negotiated a limited nuclear test ban with the Soviet Union while in London during U.N.-sponsored Cold War disarmament talks.

The only problem was that Eisenhower, under pressure from the Allies, had no interest in a test ban or nuclear parity at that time, Kirby said. There would be no deal, and Stassen was told to report to the U.S. Embassy in London, where he was summarily dressed down by Eisenhower and resigned.

Stassen's achievement was monumental, but he had overstepped his bounds and paid the price. "It makes my heart ache. He stayed up all night drafting the treaty. The Allies had a fit. It was a humiliating experience for Stassen," Kirby said.

On the downside

The demise of Stassen, who supported Social Security, civil rights and women's rights, marked the end of an era in Republican politics. One of his goals was to liberalize the party.

"He was one of the last GOP candidates to have a large, grass-roots progressive following. (The disappearance of) liberal Republicans deeply frustrated him," Kirby said.

Harold Stassen in 1980Stassen claimed he continued to run for president knowing he wouldn't win but to keep the Republican Party from shifting away from its historical centrist position and becoming too conservative. He failed to do that, as well.

Stassen's political downfall was hastened when he tried, with tacit approval from Eisenhower, to discredit Vice President Nixon to get Nixon off the 1956 presidential ticket. "It destroyed Stassen's credibility. He sounded the alarm on Nixon. They became bitter enemies," Kirby said.

As his political career began to founder — he was a young man politically at age 51 in 1958 — Stassen still was a successful attorney in international law for major U.S. corporations. Along with his quadrennial campaign for president, he lost races for governor of Pennsylvania and Minnesota, U.S. Senate and Congress and mayor of Philadelphia.

"His career was a Greek tragedy, a tale of hubris. He encountered so much success at a young age that he lost the ability to think critically. He became overconfident and arrogant," Kirby said.

Although history forgot about Stassen, Kirby didn't. Kirby began teaching political history in the social science department at UW-Stout in 1992, shortly after he became interested in Stassen.

While doing doctoral thesis research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as a graduate student at George Washington University, Kirby kept finding Stassen's name in important places in U.S. history.

Finding no books or scholarly articles on Stassen, Kirby started a notebook that eventually became the basis for the biography.

"There was no full-length biography and were no scholarly articles written about him because later in his career he became associated with political buffoonery," Kirby said.

Before Stassen died at age 93 in 2001, Kirby conducted an oral history interview with Stassen for the Minnesota Historical Society and interviewed Stassen on other occasions. An article Kirby wrote on Stassen's impact in the 1948 presidential campaign impressed Stassen's family, and Kirby was invited to speak at Stassen's funeral.


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