Arizona Republic from Phoenix, Arizona on June 17, 1970 · Page 101
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Arizona Republic from Phoenix, Arizona · Page 101

Phoenix, Arizona
Issue Date:
Wednesday, June 17, 1970
Page 101
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Page 101 article text (OCR)

1 . f America *s best loser reflects - ./i * on his good life of 82 years PnWMt, WeHi) CITY The Arfeon* ftepnfelte n By JULES LOR AP Newsfeatores Writer TOPEKA, Kan. - The old man rises each day with the sun, pulls on his boots, jogs the 80 yaWs down the curved driveway to fetch the morning papers then jogs back. After breakfast he heaves himself Into a hulking fleece - lined coat and hikes down the rough path behind the house to the barn to greet Red, his handsome Morgah horse. "Hello, old boy. Hour do you feel?" Plainly Red feels and looks as fit and alert, as hearty and,as eager to be up and doing as his master, Alf Landon Alfred M, Landon tf Kansas. He's 82 now. .The old man gives the Morgan and the eight Shetlands sotoe grain to warm S!*fr bdHes and speaks to each in turn. Hello, April. Hello, Judy, old girl." The Shetlands are pets. His 10 grandchildren rarely ride them anymore; perhaps his great - grandchild will. Full and contenUthe ponies wander out of the old stone juid clapboard barn to the rolling pasfore tp graze under apple trees.,If the! veather is tolerable, Landon saddles the Morgan for a leisurely six •'- mile i^de up the Kansas A gregarious man, tW morning ride is Alf Landon's private time, his time to ponder and reflect. .; / One whose adult Bfe has encompassed all there has been of the 20th century, whose own father once picked up a sou- venlr Indian bow from a battlefield, who has experienced the highest public trust his fellow Kansans could bestow and the deepest public/rejection his fellow Americans have eVer expressed, who has the perspective (of eight decades, four generations, from which to view the world's stresses and'conflicts, surely is one who, in the mojning quiet of a river bank, has much to' reflect on, much to ponder. Alf Landon describes himself, wryly, as "a lawyer who Mver had a case, an oilman who never made a million and a presidential candidate who carried only Maine and Vermont," Settled In a padded green velvet rocker before a crackling fire in his walnut paneled library, (he former governor contemplated all three careers. ( "H you're wondering whether I would change anything ii I had my life to liva over again," he saiti, "the answer is no. "Oh, there were some mistakes I would avoid. Personal things. But the course of my life? No, I wouldn't alter it a bit." How about the course the nation has taken. Would he alter that? "Well," he said, "if I had been elected president there would have been more antitrust suits filed, I can tell you that. But who can say whether things would have been better if one could go back ?nd change this isolated fact of history or that? History is made up of interrelated parts and has to be viewed whole. Commenting on it is far less haa- ardous than making it. "I can tell you this, though. We have developed in thisi country today a sounder political life than ever before. "Our people have a loftier civic consciousness. More 1 people are more concerned today than at any time in my experience about conflicts of interest in government, about the problems of the laborer, about the fact that an American can go hungry in his own rich country. I don't think there ever has been greater reason to hope and less cause for despair." With the serenity of his accumulated years — years that span, among their more tragic moments, attempts on the lives of five presidents; two horribly successful — Alf Landon can even view the last decade's spasms of violence with some equanimity. Among assorted artifacts and political memorabilia in his basement is the three-sided lectern he used on the four speaking tours of his 1936 presidential campaign against Franklin D. Roosevelt. It takes four men to lift the lectern. It's bulletproof. "They thought somebody might take a shot at me," said Landon. "Those were volatile times." He leaned back in the rocker stretching his legs, dug his heels in the Oriental rug and stared in contemplation at the beamed ceiling. "People are distraught over today's violence, as well they should be," he said. "This country has always been cursed with violence. Do you remember the Ludlow massacre? "The National Guard ... I don't know whether the governor called them or they called themselves ..." Remembering, the old man choked, and a tear wet his seamed cheek. "... They shot down babies . .. women .. . drove them back into their burning tents..." For a long moment he wiped his glasses with his handkerchief and finally said, "Don't be overly dismayed by the recent violence. Name something terrible that's happened, and I'll tell you something as bad. The country always seems to survive. "The important thing is that today more people seem to be outraged by the violence around them. That shows improvement, wouldn't you say?" The incident Landon referred to ha> pened in 1914 in Ludlow, Colo., when « tent dty inhabited by striking coal miners was drenched in oil, set ablaze and the fleeing families mowed down by company gunmen and National Guardsmen. Twenty were killed, including a pregnant woman and 13 children, "At least," Landon said, "whatever the failings of today's so-called establishment, cruelty and violence are not among its instruments of policy." Alf Landon likewise can look upon the current crop of boisterous young campus radicals with the calm gaze of an old sachem who, as he put it, has "walked in their moccasins." "I'm an old Bull Mooser, you know," he said. "We were the wild bunch in my day. Just what is a radical? They called us radicals back theft. Some people called me a radical for being in favor of reducing the 12-hour day to 10 hours. "Not many of us old Progressives are left," he said. "But the ones who are still around have lived to see the country accept all the 'radical' programs we advocated. They're part of our way of life now." An old Bull Mooser? Really? To one who indeed was not aware of it, the revelation had the shock of ice water. Alf Landon has been best remembered, of course, as the man who went down to cataclysmic defeat at the hand of a supremely popular PDR in pursuit of his second term. Result: 523 electoral votes to eight, the most lopsided In history. Landon's more ironic misfortune, however, is that he has outlived not his enemies, as the elderly are wont to jest, but his large circle of friends. Former comrades such as William Allen White, Robert M. LaFollette, William E. Borah, Hiram Johnson. Old pals and admirers who knew him all the years before the one fateful year, 1936, when greatness, as it were, was thrust upon Alfred Mossman Landon. They all died and left him ... a lawyer who never had a case and a presidential candidate who carried "I have a good life,.. what else matters?" abandoned in the next generation's attic as the national symbol of the all-time loser. A pity. His fate appears even more stark when placed in contrast with the rollicking years of triumph and popularity that set him on this ill-starred course toward a sweeping first-ballot nomination at the 1936 Republican convention even though, as he points out, few rank-and-file Republicans outside of Kansas knew much about his background, What they knew was that he won the Kansas governorship in 1932 despite a Roosevelt - inspired Democratic landslide, was one of four Republican governors elected that year, and that when he ran for a second term two years later he was the only Republican governor elected in the nation. The governorship was Landon's first and only elective office. As a dedicated amateur, he rose from precinct worker to state GOP chairman even though he bolted his party in 1912 to campaign for Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose effort and again in 1924 to support William Allen White's anti-Ku Klux Klan campaign for the Kansas governorship. "My record for party regularity," says Landon, "is not impressive." Ticking off the stands he has taken on various political issues over the years, Landon prompted a visitor to interject: "Governor, you sound like an unreconstructed New Dealer." "So I've been told," he replied. With his background and the wisdom of his years, whom does the old Bull Mooser regard as the great men of this country in his time? "Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman," he said without hesitation. "Woodrow Wilson might have been if he had been willing to make some concessions. So might have John F. Kennedy if he had lived; he had what it takes. Great men? I think you would have to include John L. Lewis and Samuel Gompers." It was pointed out that his list seems to tend toward Democrats. He shrugged "I expect it does." If Alf Landon was the worst-beaten presidential candidate of the century — third worse, if gauged by percentage of popular vote — he is also perhaps the least embittered. He seems to regard his defeat rather like a train wreck or the collapse of a bridge: an impersonal act of God that occurred while he just happened to be there. And he can discuss it in good humor. He likes to illustrate his morning after - election feeling with a yarn about a Kansan whose ranch was wiped out by a tornado — house, barn, fences, everything. Inspecting the wreckage the rancher burst out laughing. "How can you laugh at a time like this?" asked his weeping wife. "It's just the completeness of it," the man replied. Some years ago Landon had occasion to introduce his wife to the late Norman Thomas, the determined crusader whd ran for president three times otf the Socialist ticket, as "the one I licked In '36." Was the '39 fiasco one of the things be would avoid if he had it to do over again? "I wouldn't duck the fight, if that's what you mean," he said. "But I'd run the campaign differently, It wouldn't affect the outcome, but I'd feel better about it personally. "What I regret is that J didn't divorce myself as I should have from the old Republican policies I .didn't believe in. For Instance, I wa* more of an internationalist than Roosevelt Txit somehow I managed to get branded as the isolationist. I was stuck with the same sort of handicap Hubert Humphrey had, only worse." Landon need not have bowed out of public life after Uial "We were the wild bunch in my day" Y.nnt. Landon tells in fascinating detail how he, too, was approached. by a go- between for a post in the same cabinet and turned it down before it was actually proffered. Again in '38, he says, a Senate seat was his practically for the asking, but "I decided that I preferred the comparatively simple but more intelligent life of Topeka, Kan. "Politics," he explained, "has always been an avocation with me, never a vocation. I never worried about my political future. You can have a good time in politics if you have that attitude." Besides, by 1938 the Landons had bought a quarter-section of land north of town and selected a treed and tranquil 40-acre portion of it for .a stately, 14-room, white-columned house. Landon paid for the house and had money left over by subdividing the remaining 120 acres. There he and his wife settled down to raise their three children. Landon returned to work as an independent oilman, the career he chose rather than law after he was admitted to the Kansas bar in 1908. He still personally supervises his oil business — as well as four radio stations which he bought tyn 1958 — and politics remains an abiding avocation. At his downtown office, where he shows up for work daily, he keeps two secretaries busy with voluminous correspondence. The office grind, the morning horseback ride, the Jog to the mailbox these are not manifestations by Alf Landon of some ostrich-like attempt to cheat old age. He seems to regard his 82. years not as a calamity but a privilege. "A friend wrote me not long ago after a speech I made and said, VVren't you having a wonderful time saying what you want to say and getting « printed?' I must say that lam," Landon smiled. What Alf Landon appears truly to savor are the multitudes of memories his years have given him. They provide hours of sweet, rambling, often sagacious fireside reminiscences. Other than to a physical sense, he was asked, does « person ever begin to feel old? "I was discussing that very point with a fellow I met the other day ... let's see, his name escapes me—aha," Landon said, "there you are. I seem to have trouble remembering names, nowadays. I don't know whether I'm becoming senile or my mind simply has reached its capacity," He continued: "J remember Mrs. Lan(Jon's- uncle, Mrs. Landon carne from a Vl'.^t VifJ'.iil!;, f.'.jnlly V.illl ... !.,;,,» |, :1 r t mother used to tell about an old uncle. I guess he was in his late 80s. Once she asked him whether he worried about growing old. The old man roared, 'Not half as much as I .worry about that black Republican administration in Washington!' "When I was a boy they used to say that people voted 'the way they shot' My people all shot from the North. "I had a great uncle back in Conneautville, Pa. He was a sergeant in the First Pennsylvania Cavalry. Uncle Charley He used to ring'the bell for the Methodist services, "Well, there was a Democrat in Conneautville, a friend of Uncle Charley's who had been elected state treasurer before the war. When Uncle Charley came home, the Democrat was running for governor. "This was much later, actually, along about 1902. I was visiting there-we lived over in Elba, Ohio. No, it must have been around 1903 or '04. Well I said to Uncle Charley, 'I expect you're going to vote for that Democrat.' "Uncle Charley thwacked his cane on the floor and said, 'What! Vote for the party that shot at the Union? Never!' "We've come a long way since then." Landon said. "Governor," he was asked, "have you ever voted for a Democrat?" He grinned. "I have not always supported the candidate of the Republican party," he said. At day's end, Alf Landon appeared comfortably tired. He rose from the rocker to stir the fire, and' soft light cheered the room and lit the walls of books and the potted -plants and shimmered on the bay window. Ghostlike, at the darkened end of the room farthest from the hearth, rested the old man's desk with its clutter of papers, yellow pencils with erasers well worn, heavy ashtray, two pipes, one elaborately carved, the other a brown- stained corncob, several tiers of books, some with protruding page markers- Lord Tweedsmuir's "Pilgrim's Way" leaning against Ufunlin Garland's "Boy Life on the Prairie," Schlestoger'g "The Politics of Upheaval" sharing a corner with Peterson's "The Bird Watcher's Anthology," "I have a good life/' Alf Landon sajd. His brown eyes glistened in the fireglow like topaz. • ''' I . h *J e » l woul( J suppose, more mends than many other people, more, probably, .than I deserve. I have my health. I am blessed with a beautiful family. V i i

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