Second of two articles about the Landons – Nancy, a former U.S. Senator (1978-96), and her father, Alf, the former Kansas governor (1933-37) and presidential candidate, inducted in November to the Kansas Walk of Honor at the State Capitol.
In November 1962, Alf Landon, an elder statesman of the Republican party, was asked in a long interview with The New York Times, to describe his political philosophy. ‘’I would say practical progressive, which means that the Republican Party or any political party has got to recognize the problems of a growing and complex industrial civilization. And I don’t think the Republican Party is really wide awake to that.’’
At the time Landon was, like his friend Dwight Eisenhower a global figure. He had come to Kansas as a teenager with his family, graduated from KU in 1908, worked in a bank, then made an early venture into the oil business and by 1929 had earned a fortune. All the while he acquired respect and status as a progressive Republican in the state’s reform-minded political system. He was elected governor in 1932, reelected in 1934 and nominated for president two years later.
Landon’s remarks in that Times interview were no surprise to those who knew him. A respected and experienced raconteur, he was well-tuned to the ways and means of American politics and culture even three decades after his thrashing in a dignified 1936 presidential race, and a half-century after he attended the Bull Moose convention in Chicago that nominated Theodore Roosevelt for the presidency.
Republicans began to drift right in the 1960s, as Nixon and Reagan followed the determined Goldwater, but Landon remained a fixture in the party’s liberal wing, one with considerable history. For example, he had opposed Republicans who supported the Neutrality Act in the 1930s, fearing it would give Nazi Germany the impression that the U.S. wouldn’t fight; when Britain needed help, he urged $5 billion in foreign aid.
Landon, a popular governor and presidential nominee, declined to campaign vigorously against Franklin Roosevelt, mostly because he had endorsed many of the most controversial aspects of FDR’s domestic policies known as the New Deal; he respected and admired the president. On the surface, Roosevelt’s battle to counter the Depression and Dust Bowl was expensive. The federal budget was in the red, the national debt had increased (to $7 billion) and seven million Americans were jobless. But Landon knew that beneath even the ugliest numbers, things had improved. Unemployment was high, but half what it had been in 1932. The banks had been saved. National income and profits were up. The Dow Jones average had nearly doubled. Because of the improved economy, wealthy Republicans were wealthier, able to pour millions into a campaign against the Democrat who had saved their bank accounts.
Many Republicans seemed Landon’s own worst enemy. Henry Ford, for example, talked without thinking, declaring that Landon was like President Calvin Coolidge, “the Kansas Coolidge.” (In truth, Coolidge was unsure, short on leadership and afraid to make enemies, a reluctant underachiever.) Landon’s record was often obscured by the special interests who imagined him as their spokesman. Herbert Hoover’s endorsements were an embarrassment. Literary Digest surveyed voters who owned automobiles and telephones and found them strong for Landon; he would win, the Digest said. But most of the nation remained poor, did not own telephones or automobiles and were not about to vote for the man Henry Ford claimed as his boy.
After defeat in ‘36 and over the years, Landon remained a gentle liberal with a vision that embraced the world. He would support President Truman on aid to Greece and Turkey in response to communist threats, and he backed the Marshall Plan for reconstructing Europe after the Second World War. And in 1961, Landon argued that the U.S. should join Europe’s Common Market even as President Kennedy merely urged cooperation. The stuff of Landon’s dreams often became issues or answers, policy or law: Civil rights. Recognition of “Red China.” Trade with the communists. And Landon supported many of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare.
On Dec. 13, 1966, Landon delivered the first in a lecture series named for him at Kansas State University, entitled “New Challenges in International Relations.” The theme rings yet, and the Landon Lectures continue to feature world leaders and political figures including seven U.S. presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Landon also addressed the GOP national convention in Kansas City in 1976, and he and his wife, Theo, welcomed President Reagan to their Topeka home in September 1987 to celebrate Landon’s 100th birthday.
Landon may be seen as once the nation’s most celebrated and displaced hero, a champion of the disillusioned, trying always to convince people – from those who would lead nations to those who sweep its streets – that the world is better when we seek to embrace more than our own kind.
– JOHN MARSHALL