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The Sage Of Topeka
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
Landslide is not a word formed from Landon, the last name of the man who in 1936 was the Republican nominee for President of the United States. But it might just as well have been.
In the election of November 3, 1936, Alfred Mossman London got 16,681,913 votes—compared with 27,751,612 for winner Franklin D. Roosevelt. While Roosevelt swept 523 electoral votes, London won only eight—those of Maine and Vermont. Small wonder that Maine and Vermont were thenceforth looked on as states and cases apart—and that London became a synonym for landslide.
“The nation has spoken,” London wired his victorious opponent. “Every American will accept the verdict and work for the common cause of the good of our country. That is the spirit of democracy. You have my sincere congratulations. ”
Today London tends his forty acres in Topeka and owns three Kansas radio stations: WREN in Topeka, KEDD in Dodge City, and KSCB in Liberal. He is still in the oil business, describing himself as “the smallest hind of operator.” He has oil wells in eastern Kansas (he also has gas wells m the western part of the state); some are forty years old and average about a barrel or two a day. “In these little wells,” he says, “the margin of profit is very small. Any change in taxes will probably mean the abandonment of some of the wells.”
Landon and his wife, Theo, live alone m a vast white mansion that would serve a President nicely, and the passion of his life is what it has been these many years: politics. He celebrated his eighty-second birthday last September, but he still visibly delights in recalling the great days of his greatest national prominence.
If I had 1936 to do over again [he began] I shouldn’t have been so conscious of the necessity to keep my record tied to the record of the Republican Party in the Congress. I shouldn’t have leaned over backward to mention Republican harmony in every speech.
And when Roosevelt said it was the little acts that kept us out of war, I’d have pointed out that the breakdown of the London Economic Conference—which took place at the beginning of his administration—was one of the little acts that would get us into war.
I would have developed more arguments on foreign policy. I would have questioned more definitely and thoroughly than I did—more aggressively—his administration in handling the so-called welfare state.
It might have affected more electoral votes, but I don’t think it would have been enough to elect me President. As soon as I was nominated for the Presidency, I sent for two bankers and asked what economic conditions would be from then until the election. They said each month would be better than the last.
Americans have a rough rule of thumb by which they judge the President—by how good or bad times are. So I knew right then I couldn’t win.
I’m not making any excuses. I’m just saying that was the situation at the time.
He recalled the preconvention maneuvering.
I accepted an invitation to speak at the annual dinner of the Ohio State Chamber of Commerce in 1935. At breakfast the Ohio national committeemen told me it was all set up for Bob Taft to enter the convention as favorite son and would not take kindly to anyone who came in and tried to upset that.
So I told them they were going to be upset.
“You mean you’re going to enter?” he asked, and I said No, but Borah’s [Senator William E. Borah, Idaho Republican] certainly going to enter.
Then Borah did enter Ohio. Frank Knox [a Chicago newspaper publisher who was to become Landon’s running mate] called me the next morning and said, “I’m leaving in an hour for Boston. If you don’t enter Ohio, I will. I want you to call me in Boston and let me know.”
I said, “All right.” I didn’t call.
He called Roy Roberts of the Kansas City Star , and wanted to know what I’d do. Roy said, “He’s a stubborn Scotsman and insists he won’t enter any favorite-sori contests.”
A political reporter for the Wolfe papers said Mr. Wolfe would underwrite my campaign, and I said that’s one reason I’m not going to enter Ohio or any other state. I’m not going to be under obligations to any man.
There were two reasons I didn’t contest any favoriteson elections. One was money. We limited contributions to twenty-five hundred dollars. Roy Roberts said he’d never seen so much money shaken under the nose of a candidate—and refused. The second reason was that I thought the election was a tough enough fight, and I wanted to preserve party harmony.
Landon discussed the Presidency of Herbert Hoover, and Hoover ‘s role in London’s own election campaign.
Mr. Hoover served a very useful life as an ex-President. The only thing he couldn’t get over was his feeling that he should be nominated again, and that his administration should be defended.
Before Hoover became President, several reporters used to call on him regularly. He was Secretary of Commerce then, and there was no one from whom they could get such a clear description of problems and policies. When he became President, however, he just froze up. It’s like the common case of junior executives who can outline a policy for their company that’s perfect, but when they become chief executive they can’t carry out the policy they advocated. That was Mr. Hoover.
To give him his due, I think it must be said that he saw 1930 coming. But he never did anything about it- or if he did it was too little and too late. When the banking crisis came in Detroit, Hoover threw in forty or sixty million dollars. If he’d thrown in forty million three weeks earlier, or if he’d thrown in one hundred million when he threw in forty or sixty, it would have done some good. I’m not objecting to what he did—but to what he didn’t.
Hoover came here to see me for lunch one day during my campaign. He was sore because I wouldn’t make a defense of his administration. When the newspapermen heard Hoover was here, they wanted him to come out to a dinner they had previously arranged and spend some time with them. Hoover agreed. That night Roosevelt was speaking at Pittsburgh. Most of the reporters were for Roosevelt, though most of them were my friends.
We were listening to Roosevelt’s speech on the radio, and every time Roosevelt said “Hoover,” the crowd booed. I was afraid to look at Hoover. Somebody told me afterward his face was frozen. Finally I said, “Mr. Hoover, I expect you’d better leave for the train.” Of course we were way ahead of time.
Landon would like the record to show that he was not an isolationist, either in the campaign itself or afterward.
You’ll find a page in my Indianapolis foreign policy speech in October ’36 in which I said that the Neutrality Acts were the way to war. They’d make the aggressor think that the American people would not fight no matter what happens. And that was not true. Who was it who had signed the Neutrality Act? Mr. Roosevelt.
So then President Roosevelt called a special session of Congress to repeal the Neutrality Act. He started to use our destroyers. He expanded the Lend Lease Act far beyond the intent of the Congress. All this fuss over Johnson and the expansion of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution —that was nothing compared with what Roosevelt did.
As I said in November ’36, there wasn’t anyone more isolationist in the country than Franklin Roosevelt. When he finally decided to ask Congress to repeal the Neutrality Act, he wanted me to back the move. I’d had a talk with Cordell Hull, and I called his attention to my Indianapolis speech. I said all the President can expect when he changes his position is silence from the opposition.
Roosevelt wasn’t showing any leadership. I’d have supported him if he’d taken the leadership. But he wanted me to take the leadership and advocate repeal of the Neutrality Act. You don’t mobilize support by saying, “Go over the top, boys!” You say, “Come on, boys, follow me!”
I can show you a speech I made in Chicago—in ’39, I guess—in which I said it was to our interest, to America’s interest, to challenge Hitler and Mussolini. Did Roosevelt support that? No. If he was waiting for support, there it was.
The record established by his opponent in the years after 1936 did not endear the President to Mr. Landon.
Roosevelt had plenty of time—he didn’t need to sneak into a European war. I’d urged him repeatedly to go to the American people with his policy. I said in speeches that no one could be sure of what his policy was. Do we have to have a President sneak us into war?
When Frank Knox was offered a position in Roosevelt’s cabinet [as Secretary of the Navy], Knox said he’d be in the position of a traitor if he didn’t get me to be in the cabinet as well. But I was firm against the idea of going into the cabinet, since I wanted to preserve the validity of the two-party system. My own point of view was that we could have national unity in a much simpler and more acceptable way than by having me in the cabinet: all the President had to do was to take himself out of the third-term race.
The President deliberately put on an act when Frank Knox brought up the third term. He said, “Frank, I couldn’t run again.” And he held out his shaking hands to show the condition he was in.
If they hadn’t passed that Constitutional amendment, I’d have been opposed to Eisenhower having a third term. Two things have been pretty plain in history. When you cut off circulation from the bottom to the top and assure the continuity of one person in office, you lay the foundations for the destruction of the republic.
In the declining years of the leader he always is weakened physically and mentally. One of the greatest crimes perpetrated in the country was Roosevelt campaigning in 1944 as a healthy man. He wasn’t healthy, was he? Eook at Yalta.
Truman himself said that President Roosevelt had become his own Secretary of State. You know, when a Secretary of State has had a formal conversation, he dictates a memo for the file. Roosevelt had all kinds of conversations with Stalin and Churchill and others, and all Truman could find were scraps of paper.
I said this country was in danger of becoming fascist if it re-elected Roosevelt in ’36. Fascism, of course, was too strong a word. You didn’t have the internment camps, the terrible brutality of fascism or communism. But the personal form of government that Roosevelt aimed at comes closer to being fascist than anything I can think of.
I don’t question personal ambitions unless they infringe—as I think Roosevelt’s did—on the principle of maintaining democratic processes. I wasn’t vindictive about his victory. I knew he was going to win from right early, so there wasn’t any disillusionment either.
“I never did lose my interest in foreign affairs,” he says. When Harry S. Truman went to the support of the South Koreans in 1950, Landon in a speech at Colgate University supported the President. “At Colgate I said that Truman had probably acted unconstitutionally, but he warn’t the first President to do so. Theodore Roosevelt had acted unconstitutionally in Panama.” In the fall of 1961, at the National Press Club, he spoke out in support of the European Common Market. The White House, which had advance notice of his speech, was delighted, he recalls. “I spoke on December 8, and President Kennedy on the sixth in New York, before the Motional Association of Manufacturers’ national convention. If you care to go to the trouble, you’ll find a great deal of similarity between my speech—a copy of which reached New York a couple of days before the President spoke—and the President ‘s speech. ” And he has been urging the admission of Red China to the U.N. since 1948.
In addition to his interest in foreign affairs, Landon has also remained a keen observer of the political scene, and he talks freely—and independently—about the men, Democrats as well as Republicans, who have held the office he vainly sought in 1936.
Truman made a damn sight better President than I expected, just as Nixon is making a better President than I expected. There was no hint in Truman’s record to match Roosevelt’s, and I didn’t see anything in Johnson’s record that fitted Kennedy’s—certainly not enough to be named Vice President on the ticket with Kennedy. In both cases it was a marriage of convenience.
Early in Truman’s administration I said he’d probably go down in history as a great President. He didn’t pull any punches. He laid things on the table family style. He didn’t wait for anyone to break the ice for him.
I don’t think Truman used federal projects the way Johnson did to get senators’ support—highways, dams, post offices. Johnson got his measures through by trading for them. Truman got his through by fighting for them.
I felt sorry for Dewey when Truman beat him. I sure thought Dewey was going to win in ’48. I don’t know anybody who didn’t. And I had a lot of respect for Dewey, but it was his own fault—losing that ’48 election. He didn’t do anything to win it.
Dewey never had a sense of humor, and neither did Hoover. I remember telling Dewey, “Tom, it’s better to lose big. If you get only Maine and Vermont you don’t wake up in the middle of the night and think if you did this or did that, things would have been different.” Dewey never cracked a smile.
Mr. Landon quickly turned his attention to the Republican who returned his party to the White House in the election of 1952.
I wasn’t for Elsenhower because I didn’t think a general has the training to be a President. He’s been trained in just one thing: how much that hill over there’s worth in terms of casualties to take or defend. After eight years of Eisenhower I saw no reason to change that view. Some people might say he was a do-nothing President, and I wouldn’t argue with them.
After ’64, Ray Bliss, who was chairman of the Republican Party, organized a meeting of Eisenhower, Dewey, and myself, plus the Republican leaders of the House and Senate. I didn’t go, because I considered it an exercise in futility. But I sent a proposal on conflict of interest, a proposal that covers gifts to an ex-President as well as one in power, like valuable blooded cattle, like having his buildings remodelled free by firms that do business with the government, like accepting expensive equipment for his farm. My proposal even covered the case of people whose brothers are President, and senators and congressmen who continue in law firms representing big corporations.
I didn’t have a choice in November ’64. I voted for Goldwater with about as much enthusiasm as Jim Parley voting for Roosevelt for a third term.
When Johnson won, he tried to accomplish too much at one time. His social program, welfare state, Great Society—he tried to do it so fast that he didn’t have the experienced men qualified to handle the new bureaus, and it got into the hands of politicians and graft.
And then came Vietnam. I said in ’64, get in or get out. In October ’64 Johnson was going to keep us out, and then, in February ’65, came as complete a reversal as I’ve ever known a President to make.
I wasn’t for Nixon’s nomination in ’60, but there was nothing I could do about it. As to Agnew, when ’68 came, he was from Maryland and hadn’t finished his second term. I didn’t see anything in his record that really answered the question whether he would be qualified if called on to be President, and I didn’t think it was a very good choice. I didn’t think it strengthened the ticket.
I had a little feeling of sympathy and understanding for Humphrey. He was in something of the situation I was in in ’36, when the Republicans were more interested in fighting Republicans than Democrats. Humphrey was tied so closely to the Johnson administration’s policy on Vietnam that he couldn’t fight it.
Once Nixon became President and announced his partial troop withdrawals, I thought it was a much more reasonable approach than [Clark] Clifford’s—which didn’t leave the Saigon government much time to adjust to it. How efficient the South Vietnamese army will be when we leave, only time will tell. I think maybe we ought to wait and give Nixon a little more time.
There is a legitimate argument that it makes a very basic difference what we do in Vietnam, and that all of Asia is concerned about what China would do if we pulled out.
I’ll admit it’s confusing. How can you expect a poor country boy to make a decision down here on the farm?
As far as the big picture’s concerned, the Vietnam war is the number one issue, and all wars make emotional issues. But the basic issue is the continued debasement of our dollar. What have we accomplished except the loss of lives if we end the war and continue the debasement of our dollar?
Events at Chappaqmddick have persuaded London that President Nixon is likely to have a considerable period in office to work his will.
He’s going to name practically all the Supreme Court and all the members of the regulatory agencies. So far he’s appointing right-wing people and backing liberal policies.
I can remember old Civil War men who voted as they shot. It was Republican in the North, and Democratic in the South. Nixon’s policy is not that sort—but his way is not unknown or new. If you ask me if his policy is wrong, I’d say it isn’t an unknown policy, and we’ve survived the trading off of liberal policies against rightwing men.
Maybe today, with the growth of government in our social, economic, and political life, I’d have to say that the matter of appointments is more important than the matter of policies. In that gray area that exists in all regulatory areas—as well as in courts—the philosophy of the men becomes very important, more important than the policies.
I’m not saying Nixon’s got it in the bag. Too many momentous events lie ahead. But he has the favorable position of the disorganized condition of a Democratic party that hasn’t yet recovered from the convention.
I don’t think we’ve got any new Nixon particularly. I think his campaign of ’68 followed his campaign of ’60. It’s the times that changed. Nixon won it by keeping still—while college riots built up, and disorder, and chaos. He got by with the most general statements.
He developed into quite a politician. That’s what the Democrats couldn’t forgive. Look at the way he milked that [first] moon flight. He didn’t have anything to do with the flight, but there he was getting the publicity.
Keeping current is what keeps Landon from feeling his age.
When you start worrying about your future, political or otherwise, you start growing old. I don’t have time to think about the future, and it’s never worried me. I figure on living like George Bernard Shaw, who said at ninety: “Oh, to be young again at seventy.” I want to see what’s going to happen. The whole world is at a turning point—the whole world is in chaos wherever you look: east, south, north, and west. But I don’t think I’d be here if I’d won that election in 1936. The tensions and pressures would have been too much.
I’ve had the experience—thanks to losing—that comes to few men: of continuing to live my life afterward and be of public service in what some people, at least, call an objective mood, in a discussion of our public values and principles. In ’36 some people said I was too objective to be a good candidate.
He does not regret his decision to return to Kansas after his defeat.
When I was defeated, Mrs. Landon said she’d be willing to do whatever I wanted to do, and there was talk of my running for the Senate. But what kind of education would our two young ones have had, dragging back and forth between Kansas and Washington? So we decided to stay here, and bought a hundred and sixty acres and built a house. We sold off enough land to pay for the house and pay for the ground, and leave us a nice little profit and forty acres.
We preferred the comparatively simple but more intelligent life of Kansas to Washington. There are some intelligent people in Washington. More of ‘em in Kansas.