Biography and History

W. Willard (Bill) Wirtz was a lawyer, an arbitrator, a law professor, and served as undersecretary and secretary of labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was a speechwriter for and close advisor to Adlai Stevenson from 1952 to 1960. He was born on March 14, 1912 and raised in Illinois.

After Stevenson’s election as governor of Illinois in 1948, he appointed Wirtz a member of the state’s Liquor Control Commission. Wirtz had earned a law degree from Harvard and was a law professor at Northwestern University. He had also served on the War Labor Board and had been chairman of the National Wage Stabilization Board. When Stevenson was drafted by the Democratic Party to run for president in 1952, Wirtz became one of a dozen or so of Stevenson’s speechwriters. The illustrious group also included Truman staffer David Bell, journalist John B. Martin, economists John Kenneth Galbraith and Robert Tufts, and history professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Wirtz and his colleagues called themselves the Elks Club Group after the building in which they worked in Springfield, Illinois.

John Martin, later wrote a biography of Stevenson that describes Wirtz as “a big, crew-cut man from Winnetka” who was “tense, abstemious, almost painfully loyal to Stevenson, and he kept to himself more than other members of the Elks Club Group.” Wirtz was the labor expert amongst the speechwriters, but like his colleagues, contributed speech drafts and edits on every subject. Stevenson did not like the idea that he wrote few of his speeches himself, and he rarely interacted directly with (or even acknowledged the existence of) his speechwriters during his first presidential campaign. Most communication between the candidate and his speechwriters occurred through Carl McGowan, Stevenson’s campaign manager.

In the late summer of 1955, when Stevenson was preparing a second run for the presidency, he convened a meeting of a dozen or so close advisors, including Wirtz. Tom Finletter, a former secretary of the air force, and Wirtz were assigned to run the campaign’s research section. Wirtz was in charge of approving speech content, performing a role that McGowan had assumed in the first campaign. Martin, in his Stevenson biography, described the 1956 speechwriting operation as “less happy-go-lucky, less brilliant, but far more solid than the Elks Club of 1952.” Unlike 1952, Wirtz had Stevenson’s ear in 1956 and quickly became one of Stevenson’s top two or three advisors. Martin remarks that “Wirtz found it harder than McGowan to say no to Stevenson.”

Between campaigns, Wirtz taught law, worked on the occasional Stevenson speech, and arbitrated cases. After the 1956 campaign, Wirtz, Stevenson, and a few others formed a law firm that strictly abstained from politics.

By 1960, Wirtz was a trusted and close advisor to Stevenson. Unlike the early days, Stevenson would often send memorandums directly to Wirtz, who would promptly respond back. By the 1960 Democratic Convention, Stevenson was frustrated that the media and other politicians kept hounding him to declare whether or not he was running for president. On the plane trip to the convention in Los Angeles, he dashed out a terse, peevish statement that he intended to read at the airport. He handed it to Wirtz to look over. When Stevenson later asked him about the statement, Wirtz replied that he must have “lost” it. Stevenson smiled, and delivered his previously planned speech. Wirtz continued to advise and write speeches for Stevenson as he campaigned across the country that fall for John F. Kenendy, the eventual Democratic nominee.

When Kennedy assumed office, he appointed Wirtz undersecretary of labor. In 1962, Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg was selected to be a United States Supreme Court justice. Wirtz was promoted to secretary of labor, a position in which he served through the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. He earned the respect of liberals for staunchly valuing “human interests” over economic interests, and for his principled objections to the Vietnam War. Though Wirtz and Stevenson continued to correspond periodically until Stevenson’s death, Wirtz no longer directly advised Stevenson on policy issues or contributed to Stevenson’s speeches.

After Stevenson’s death in July 1965, Wirtz was asked by President Johnson and many of Stevenson’s family, friends, and associates to participate in the establishment of various memorial funds, programs, and institutes. Through the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Wirtz has continued to comment on Stevenson’s life and legacy, including at a conference on Stevenson at Princeton University in 2000.

Source: From the finding aid for MC149

  • W. Willard Wirtz Collection on Adlai Stevenson. 1938-2002 (inclusive), 1938-1966 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC149

    W. Willard (Bill) Wirtz was a lawyer, an arbitrator, a law professor, and served as undersecretary and secretary of labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was a speechwriter for, and close advisor to, Adlai Stevenson from 1952 to 1960. The W. Willard Wirtz Collection on Adlai Stevenson documents Stevenson’s campaigns for president in 1952 and 1956, as well as Stevenson’s political activities in 1960 and in between campaigns. Because Wirtz was a speechwriter in 1952, in charge of speech content in 1956, and a close advisor and occasional speechwriter at other times, this collection most strongly documents the campaign activities of drafting speeches and fine-tuning campaign policy.

  • W. Willard Wirtz Collection on Adlai Stevenson. 1938-2002 (inclusive), 1938-1966 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC149

    W. Willard (Bill) Wirtz was a lawyer, an arbitrator, a law professor, and served as undersecretary and secretary of labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was a speechwriter for, and close advisor to, Adlai Stevenson from 1952 to 1960. The W. Willard Wirtz Collection on Adlai Stevenson documents Stevenson’s campaigns for president in 1952 and 1956, as well as Stevenson’s political activities in 1960 and in between campaigns. Because Wirtz was a speechwriter in 1952, in charge of speech content in 1956, and a close advisor and occasional speechwriter at other times, this collection most strongly documents the campaign activities of drafting speeches and fine-tuning campaign policy.