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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 896

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This is the grave of Alf Landon.

Born in 1887 in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania, Landon grew up in Ohio. When he was 17, the family moved to Kansas. He went to the University of Kansas, graduating in 1908. Landon at first worked in banking but then started wildcatting oil wells in Kansas. He joined the Army during World War I and was commissioned as a captain, but the war ended before he went to Europe.

Landon became an oil millionaire, part of the group to explore new wells in the Midwest outside of the Standard Oil monopoly. By the end of the 20s, he was rich. Of course, he was a Republican. There were few areas of the country more Republican than Kansas. Landon very much believed in Republican dogma about bootstraps and the like. He had some more reformist bona fides. He had gotten involved in Kansas politics when he was a young man and chaired Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign in the state in 1912. He was mostly an insider for a long time, considered the head of the liberal Republican wing in what was effectively a one-party state. Given what was to come with him, I find his supposed liberalism somewhat amusing. I guess it depends on the context and conservative Kansas Republicans, well, they were pretty dang conservative.

The Great Depression made the Republican brand toxic nationwide, even in Kansas, when Democrats actually took the governorship in 1930. That was genuinely shocking. I’ve always found it amusing that Thomas Frank decided to focus on the Sunflower State for What’s the Matter with Kansas, not only because the book’s premise is extremely flawed to begin with but because Kansas was a hardcore Republican state long before Democratic centrists became enamored of neoliberalism. So a Democratic victory in 1930 was genuinely a shocking moment. What this did was open the door for a relative liberal like Landon to step him. The conservatives were discredited for the time being, but since Landon wasn’t associated with them, he could bring back a lot of voters who had left the Republicans in 1930. Thus, he ran for governor in 1932 (Kansas had 2-year terms at this time) and won a close race. He was then reelected in 1934. In that year, when the bottom really had dropped out for Republicans, they won all of 2 governor races. It was Landon and Frank Merriam in California in the epic race against Upton Sinclair that made Republicans think socialism was about to destroy America. Landon remained a relatively liberal Republican. Though he did not like the New Deal, he did recognize that the government had to play some role in stabilizing the nation and he could accept unions in principle. For the conservatives, even this was anathema.

Given all of this, Landon was as well-placed as anyone to run for president in 1936. It’s hard to overstate the existential crisis Republicans faced that year. They simply could not believe that the American people would want the New Deal and all the liberals in the Roosevelt administration. For them, it was a betrayal of everything that made America great, by which they meant allowing rich people to become as rich as they wanted while doing nothing for the poor. Even if Landon didn’t quite believe that, he wasn’t that far away from it. But with so many electoral losses, who could hold that standard and save America from the supposed socialism of the New Deal?

Well, as everyone reading this probably already knows, Alf Landon was the answer. Given that there were no other serious candidates, he won it on the first ballot, naming the newspaper publisher Frank Knox as his VP candidate. But Landon proved to be a terrible candidate, a bad public speaker who didn’t like traveling. Moreover, despite his background, he ran on Social Security destroying America. This is an incredible position to take, but Social Security was a brand new and not uncontroversial idea. For Landon, the SSA destroyed American freedom. Some have claimed that Landon didn’t really believe this and rather had led Republican speechwriters do this work for him. Who cares, if he’s too lazy to even push for his own beliefs, then they aren’t really his beliefs. As Landon stated about Social Security, “It assumes that Americans are irresponsible. It assumes that old-age pensions are necessary because Americans lack the foresight to provide for their old age.” Elsewhere, he stated, “The law is unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted, and wastefully financed.”

Landon didn’t just rail against Social Security. He accused Roosevelt of subverting the Constitution, saying late in the campaign:

The President spoke truly when he boasted … ‘We have built up new instruments of public power.’ He spoke truly when he said these instruments could provide ‘shackles for the liberties of the people … and … enslavement for the public.’ These powers were granted with the understanding that they were only temporary. But after the powers had been obtained, and after the emergency was clearly over, we were told that another emergency would be created if the power was given up. In other words, the concentration of power in the hands of the President was not a question of temporary emergency. It was a question of permanent national policy. In my opinion the emergency of 1933 was a mere excuse … National economic planning—the term used by this Administration to describe its policy—violates the basic ideals of the American system … The price of economic planning is the loss of economic freedom. And economic freedom and personal liberty go hand in hand.

As you might imagine, this….did not go over well with Americans who still remembered life before FDR. That even included Kansans. They may have remained as conservative as ever, but even the farmers of western Kansas were getting direct benefits from Roosevelt and were not going to forget that, at least not yet, not when they still needed them as opposed to those people who didn’t deserve them, so basically by 1944.

Roosevelt absolutely eviscerated Landon. The Kansan won all of two states–Maine and Vermont, at this time the most conservative states in the nation. He even lost Kansas. This was the wake up call the Republicans did not want to admit they needed. By 1940, Republicans would still do poorly, but Wendell Willkie basically accepted the existence of a lot of the New Deal and it would be two generations before Republicans could really start rolling back what they always and deeply despised, a process that continues today.

After he got his hat handed to him, Landon left electoral politics. He went back to his oil fortune and his status as important Republican insider. Now FDR was a pretty good chap to his former opponents and as the nation moved toward World War II, was happy to bring prominent Republican voices into the Cabinet. In 1940, he even approached Landon about joining the Cabinet, but the Kansan refused because he was outraged that FDR was running for a third term. On the other hand, Frank Knox became Secretary of the Navy. Part of the reason to approach Landon is that he was an internationalist who hated the Nazi-friendly America First types. He became something of a broad internationalist later in life, even calling to recognize Mao as the legitimate government of China in 1949, long before this would actually happen. He got more liberal as he aged, was a supporter of LBJ and despite his earlier hatred of big government programs, actively supported the Great Society.

Landon lived to be 100 years old, dying in 1987. His daughter is Nancy Kassenbaum, who would become a senator herself.

I’ve been doing research in the Bob Packwood Papers, which, not surprisingly, are really quite interesting. Despite Packwood’s rather, uh, ignominious departure, he was a genuinely liberal Republican who did things such as defend Greenpeace from the Senate floor and fight hard for legal abortions and other women’s rights issues. Well, it turns out that Packwood was a huge collector of campaign paraphernalia. I ran across a letter from Packwood to old man Landon, seeing if he had any 36 gear he wanted to get rid of. No idea if Landon answered. But by that time, they probably had pretty similar politics.

So Alf Landon is far from the worst American even produced and just about as far from the worst Kansan. But his 36 campaign was a disgrace for attacking Social Security that way. I’m glad Roosevelt made him a footnote and I’m also glad Landon recovered to have a very responsible insider political life after that.

Alf Landon is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Topeka, Kansas.

If you would like this series to visit other losing Republican presidential candidates, a real favorite of mine, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Wendell Willkie is in Rushville, Indiana, and Thomas Dewey is in Pawling, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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