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Alf Landon, Republicans' Beloved Loser, Dies at 100

October 13, 1987|From a Times Staff Writer

Death came Monday to Alfred M. (Alf) Landon, the plain-spoken Kansas Republican who lost the 1936 presidential election in an unprecedented landslide but won the enduring respect and affection of his countrymen with his grace and dignity in defeat.

Landon, who was 100 years old, died in the elegant Colonial-style mansion he built on the outskirts of Topeka in 1937. His wife, Theo, said Landon simply stopped breathing at 5:25 p.m.

Physically vigorous until well into his 10th decade--and intellectually and spiritually vigorous almost until the moment of his death--Landon had been in declining health since the spring of 1979.

He was hospitalized for several days in May of that year, after experiencing an irregular heartbeat, and again in January, 1980, after a slight dizzy spell. In March, 1980, he was afflicted with a painful skin condition called "shingles" but remained active around his 14-room home, kept a hand in his oil and radio enterprises and maintained his lifelong and lively interest in politics.

Landon was last hospitalized two weeks ago at Stormont-Vail Regional Medical Center after complaining of internal pain. He was treated for a gallstone and a mild case of bronchitis before returning home Saturday.

President Reagan issued a statement mourning the death of the GOP elder statesman.

"Alf Landon exemplified the very best in public service," Reagan said Monday. "He deeply loved his country and he was motivated by a genuine desire to help his fellow man. . . . Gov. Landon was a true elder statesman, whose expertise and views were sought and valued by many of us in public life."

And Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who is seeking the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, called Landon "a friend and mentor."

"He was a legendary Republican who taught generations of politicians what integrity and leadership were all about. Always way ahead of his times, his life was a solid century of achievement."

At least part of Landon's interest in politics was very personal and familial--his youngest daughter, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978. Kassebaum had been scheduled to speak Monday night in Hartford, Conn., but headed back to Topeka after learning of her father's death.

Landon maintained that he played no role in his daughter's election--in fact discouraged her because of the physical strains of campaigning--and that he had little political influence with her, never offering her political counsel.

But he was obviously proud of his Republican daughter, the only woman currently in the Senate.

"Nancy," he said shortly after her election, "was a whole lot better campaigner than I was."

It was precisely this kind of common-sensical human and humorous style that endeared Landon to the public and politicians alike.

And although he had not been a political force for years, he was sought out by politicians and reporters for advice and analysis right up to the last months of his life. Reading as many as a dozen newspapers daily, listening to radio and watching television, he was always up on the latest political developments and liked nothing better than discussing the details with reporters or politicos by the hour.

One of his last public observations on international political affairs--made in an interview with The Times in February, 1980--was that in invading Afghanistan, the Soviet Union had engaged itself in "a religious war."

"No nation has ever won a war against religion," he added.

In the same interview, Landon declined to predict who would win the 1980 presidential nominations. But he made it clear that he considered Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan the front-runners.

This role of studying, observing and commenting on the political scene had been Landon's for more than four decades. He always insisted, however, that politics was not his vocation but his avocation.

Indeed, although trained at the University of Kansas as a lawyer, he never practiced as an attorney and worked full time as a politician for only four years. Like his father before him, he earned his comfortable living primarily as an independent oilman. Late in his career, he also owned and operated four radio stations in Kansas and Colorado.

Spoke at Convention

Landon's last formal political outing was at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, 60 miles east of his hometown. It was strictly a ceremonial ritual, but he was given a rousing ovation.

Characteristically, his response to the convention was hearty and humorous:

"You warm the cockles of my heart, whatever that means."

Although Landon won in two of his three runs at political office, it was as the landslide loser to incumbent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that he earned his place in history.

That was in 1936 in the midst of the worst economic depression in American history. But the electorate perceived it as a crisis that was being beaten by the free-spending New Deal measures of the Democrat they had elected four years before.

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