LANDON, ALFRED (1887-1987)
Best remembered for his landslide defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election, Alf Landon played a major role in Kansas Republican politics from the early 1900s through his death in Topeka–at age 100–on October 12, 1987.
Born in West Middlesex in the western Pennsylvania oil country on September 9, 1887, Landon moved with his family to Kansas when the oil industry sought to exploit the huge Mid-Continent deposits of the Southern Plains. An astute businessman, Landon accumulated an oil-based fortune by the 1920s, and he increasingly turned his attention to Republican politics, first behind the scenes, then as state party chairman, and finally as governor during the mid-Depression years (1933 through 1937).
Landon generally supported the Progressive side of Republican politics, which he practiced in a low-key and congenial style that emphasized bridging differences without compromising principles. As governor, he worked well with the Roosevelt administration on agricultural, petroleum, and welfare issues, among others. Moreover, he lowered taxes and reformed local government finances.
In 1935 Landon easily won reelection, the only Republican governor in the nation to do so. This success, in conjunction with his capacity to bring together various party factions, made him an attractive candidate for the 1936 Republican presidential nomination. Landon represented new leadership for the "Grand Old Party," and he won the nomination with an almost unanimous vote of the convention delegates. Landon waged an energetic and responsible campaign, but Roosevelt overwhelmed him in a defeat of historic proportions. Landon received 38 percent of the major party vote and won only eight electoral votes (Maine and Vermont). For Landon, the results would serve as his political epitaph for the public at large, but he would remain active in national, international, and Republican Party affairs for most of the next fifty years.
Landon's internationalism came to the fore as he articulated measured support for much of Roosevelt's foreign policy in the late 1930s and through the war years. He continued to speak on international issues in the postwar era, adopting positions that emphasized the value of the United Nations and the need to think seriously about world peace. At the same time, he remained active in the Republican Party, often seeking to influence the outcomes of state and national decisions. However, by the 1950s, with his failure to back fellow Kansan Dwight Eisenhower for the Republican presidential nomination, Landon had become an outsider at both the state and national levels.
For the last thirty years of his life Landon played the role of a Republican elder statesman and was an advocate for strengthening international trade. A lifelong partisan, Landon won bipartisan admiration for his independence, experience, and civility. And he would spend his last years observing the successes of his daughter, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, as she served with distinction in the U.S. Senate and practiced the kind of moderate Republicanism that he had long championed.
Burdett A. Loomis University of Kansas
Landon, Alfred M. America at the Crossroads. Port Washington NY: Kennikat Press, 1971.
McCoy, Donald R. Landon of Kansas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Palmer, Frederick. This Man Landon. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1936.