I received this letter from Alf Landon when I was fifteen years old, in Kansas, in 1968, after I’d written to him to complain that political party conventions were outmoded. Landon had supported Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in 1922, and was elected governor of Kansas in 1932, serving as a very popular moderate-to-liberal Republican, and gaining a reputation for cutting taxes and balancing the budget. But Landon is best known (outside of Kansas) for running against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential race and losing in one of the biggest landslides in history.
The most influential political poll in 1936, the Literary Digest poll, predicted that Landon would win the election with fifty-seven percent of the popular vote, but he lost by more than ten million votes. He even lost Kansas, carrying only Maine and Vermont for a total of eight electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 523. His defeat plunged the Republican Party into a long period of internal strife. Landon eventually supported Lyndon Johnson.
Alf Landon was much loved in Kansas, and his Landon Lecture series at Kansas State University in Manhattan brought many world leaders, including seven U.S. presidents, there to speak. Because of Alf Landon, I ended up going to Kansas State and majoring in political science (after turning down a Navy ROTC scholarship). But in my first year there I organized protests against Nixon and Kissinger’s Christmas bombings of Cambodia, marched on the ROTC building, and led a student strike against the firing of a radical history professor. In my second year, I was asked to leave Kansas State and, by implication, Kansas, and I did.
Landon was no radical, but he inherited part of the old populist/progressive strain in Kansas politics that Thomas Franks recalled in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? When Landon objects here to “the right of political dissent and political opposition” being “suppressed by arrest and threat of arrest and containment without trial by realistic judicial processes,” he’s referring to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where Chicago police and the Illinois National Guard rioted against protestors—and unlike in St. Paul this year, “the whole world was watching.” But at this point, one also can’t help thinking of the judicial havoc wreaked by Cheney’s lawyers and the Bush-stacked Supreme Court that we’ll all be dealing with for decades.
And when Landon writes of his fear of “the trend toward the government of a democracy by a plutocracy. . . that always leads to a great upheaval, generally followed by a military junta,” it sounds like a dire warning that we would do well to heed today, in our own increasingly perilous times.
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
David Levi Strauss is the author of the forthcoming book Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (The MIT Press, 2020), and Chair of the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York.