Some years back, President Reagan remarked Sunday, he told Alfred M. Landon he’d like to meet him on Landon’s 100th birthday.
“He looked me up and down,” Reagan recalled. “He said: ‘You seem to be in pretty good shape. I think maybe you can make it.’ ”
Reagan, Landon’s junior by 24 years, did make it on Sunday, stopping off with his wife, Nancy, as they were returning home to Washington from their California ranch. Actually, it was three days short of the elder man’s birthday as the two politicians sat together and chatted quietly on the front porch of Landon’s fading mansion--one man old, the other older; one the landslide winner in the last presidential election, the other the victim of a landslide loss more than 50 years ago.
Given Landon’s infirmities--failing eyesight, failing hearing and the overall fragility that comes to a man these days who was born in 1887, when Grover Cleveland was President--the conversation was brief and so were the speeches.
After Reagan used both hands to guide Landon to a microphone, the Republican Party’s 1936 presidential candidate said in a firm, deliberate voice:
“It’s a great day in my life and it’s a great day in the life of all of us to have had the privilege that we have today of meeting the President of the United States and Mrs. Reagan. I give you now the President.”
While Reagan spoke, Landon remained standing, depending on a cane for support and his daughter, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), to repeat the President’s remarks in his left ear.
‘Chased Many Dreams’
“In 100 years, Alf Landon has chased many dreams and caught most of them,” Reagan said. “Along the way, he’s found time to stand for the American values of liberty, democracy and opportunity.
“When it was out of fashion, you warned of the dangers of too much government and too much government spending,” Reagan said, referring to Landon’s 1936 campaign warnings that the Social Security system was not financed soundly and that other New Deal programs would bring more taxes and regulations.
And there was time for good-natured kidding by the President:
“You preceded me by a bit as our party’s nominee for President, and I had a little better luck. Well, I also had better years and an easier field.”
Landon, a little man in a Navy blue blazer, light blue shirt, red tie and gray slacks, bent over his cane--little more than his bald head fringed with closely cropped silver hair showing to the crowd of guests on his front lawn. He looked up and smiled occasionally.
Blows Out Candle
After the remarks, Nancy Reagan presented Landon with a birthday cake with one candle. He promptly blew out the flame.
Then, with the University of Kansas Marching Band playing an almost mournful version of “Home on the Range,” Reagan and Landon sat in two porch chairs, chatting together for a minute or two, with several generations of Landon kin seated alongside on folding chairs.
Moments later, the birthday party was over. The Reagans headed home to the White House, ending a 25-day California visit, and Landon walked slowly through his front doorway into his home.
What the ceremonial visit had not shown is that Alfred Mossman Landon and Ronald Wilson Reagan--Republican politicians whose years have witnessed stunning changes in the nation and its politics--are hardly similar men.
One was returned to the White House with the electoral votes of all but two states, and one was denied the presidency when he stepped in front of a landslide in which only two states--Maine and Vermont--voted for him.
Quirks of History
But there are differences beyond the quirks of history: Ronald Reagan is a conservative who has frequently clashed with organized labor; Alf Landon, while running for the presidency in 1936 as a foe of many New Deal programs that were supported at the time by the then-young Reagan, counted as his friend George Meany, the late leader of the AFL-CIO, and opposed in 1966 an anti-union “right-to-work” proposal in Kansas.
Landon, governor of Kansas during the Great Depression, earned the sobriquet of the “Old Budget Balancer” by imposing a 25% across-the-board spending cut that got rid of the state’s budget deficit--a federal budget goal Reagan has set but has been unable to achieve in Washington.
Landon, in 1950, favored U.S. recognition of China, a step opposed by Reagan for many years, and he sets himself apart from many conservative Republicans allied with Reagan by expressing his dismay that matters of personal conscience, such as abortion, have become political issues.
Reagan Voted Democratic
And, he differs from the President in this respect: Ronald Reagan, who cast his first presidential vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, voted for Democratic presidential candidates through 1948. Presumably, Alf Landon did not.
These days, according to periodic reports from journalists who wander up the dirt and gravel driveway to the white-columned porch of the Landon home and chat with the old man there, just keeping up with the news of the day is a challenge for Landon.
He counts on friends to read to him--"I have to chase people around the house to get somebody to read the paper to me,” he told one interviewer--but a new pair of glasses enables him to watch television.
And so, a question by another interviewer about the Persian Gulf brought the response that “I think there might be some concern about it, but, going on 100, I can’t keep track of those things. I can’t read at all.”