He is 91 now, hard of hearing and a little cantenkerous, his face narrowed and falled, his fingers smooth as wax fruit. But don't feel sorry: He still snitches cigarettes and he still rides a horse up the Kaw River nearly every morning before breakfast. "Nothing so good for the inside of a man," says Alf M. Landon, "as the outsides of a horse."
Kansas looks gray and raw and infertile: November flatness. Behind his house, on I-70, cars and semis blur by - west to California, perhaps, east to who knows what metropolitan dreams. Alf Landon, who has lived for 41 years in this house, with its eight white columns out fronts, and its firs maples and birches sloping down the back, never yearned much for such dreams. Kansas was always fine by him. The world could spin on without him. That's part of his mystique.
"Washington has some smart people," Alf Landon likes to say. "More of 'em in Kansas."
Nancy Landon Kassebaum, Republican senator-elect, answers the door. Her unwashed Nova, which is pasted with Kassebaum-for-Senator bumper stickers, is out in the driveway. She has just arived herself, having delivered a speech this morning to a school board convention downtown. her speech was her first public appearance since her election victory three weeks ago. "It begin now," she says, smiling. When the Senate convenes in January, Nancy Kassebaum will be the only woman in its midst. Recently, Margaret Chase Smith sent her a note of congratulation - and good luck. "She said she was glad to see I ran as a candidate first, and a woman second."
Kassebaum's father, the man ran disastrously against FDR in 1936, the oldest living Republican landmard, the grand old man of the grand old party, is stretched out on a sofa in his huge paneled den at the back of the house. At his feet, a fire is lit. Richly bound books are everywhere.
Landon is wearing an old blue zip-up sweater with food stains on the sleeves brown gabardine pants, a pair of shin-high boots. He is turned on his side, one eye closed, the other cocked and ready for all comers.
"Dad," his daughter says, approaching gingerly, "would you like us to get started without you?" The old man rouses himself - like an ancient, creaky hound - swiping at the Indian blanket that partially confines him. Working to right himself on the floor, he mutters. The gist of it is this: Nobody need start anything without him. And he wasn't asleep, just resting. And he wouldn't even have been doing that if it weren't for that he had to get up so early this morning for a doctor's appointment (five months overdue, it is learned). In fact, if there weren't so many interruptions, he'd outdoors this minute on his horse.
He wanders across the room, takes up a frayed chair. Behind his head is a brass floorlamp. Wisps of white hair stand up in the light, as if charged by static electricity. His hands are folded. He is breathing with stately measure. He is anybody's great-grandfather.
It is true he didn't want his daughter to run? "Oh, that's one of those things that gets overblown in the press," he says, waving it quickly away. "I was thinking purely of the physical strain. While it may be easier now in some ways than when I was in the game - there's air-conditioning, for one thing - it's still a terrible grind. I wasn't sure I wanted her to go through it."
He quiets, starts again. "Course, now you got to have a wig-maker and a pancake man for TV." a brief cackle. It starts up, stutters. Back to the Kitchen
Kassebaum talks: "Toward the last of the campaign, I think what was intriguing everyone was that I wasn't giving out. I'm not a very nervous person, so I wasn't using up nervous energy. Mostly I think it was my pacing. I made sure to save Sundays for myself, get home to the kids, do some cooking."
She has been nesting in the crook of an armchair opposite her father, arms folded. She is a tiny, fragile-looking woman, 46 years old, mother of four, with sharp - almost sculpted - features, handsome swatches of gray in her hair, and a smile that explodes on her face. During the campaign the Kansas City Star called her an "injured wren."
She is wearing a herringbone jacket, a brown calf-length skirt, caramel pumps. Her blouse is tied at her neck in a bow. The lipstick is understated, and so, is the gold signet ring on her little finger. She is a vision of the modern Midwestern mother, never mind that she is a) a millionaire with complex holdings, and b) legally separated from her husband.
One of Kassebaum's more effective TV ads had her standing at the kitchen sink, rubber gloves over the faucet. "Everyone brings up those rubber gloves," she says. "I don't even realize they were there." Her whole campaign strategy was one of fresh face, fresh voice, this is your neighbor.
Her son John, senior at Kansas State, was her driver in campaign. He took off the fall semester to help his mom, as did Linda, who also attends K-State. Linda stood in for her mother many times during the campaign. There are two other Kassebaum children. Bill, 16, is the youngest, a junior in high school. He, like the others, will stay in Kansas for the time being, says their mother.
"I think what John cared about most on the final day, when we finally made it home, was what we having for dinner."
"What's that" says Landon. One hand is cupped on a jug ear. He has dozed off.
She repeats it. "Oh." He settles back.
He sensed a natural campaigner right off, he says. "I will say this: Nancy was a whole lot better than I was. I was pretty rough. My talks . . . were never knit together what well. I was better at shaking hands."
How closely did he follow the campaign Landon, grinning: "How close do you think" Kassebaum, smoothing: "For someone who likes to give advice as much as dad does, he didn't really get that involved. We would talk by telephone maybe once a week, that's all." Actually she says, her mother, who is 81, was more encouraging about running in the first place. "Toward the end I began to worry about them both. I know it was a strain. It was so up and down." Paternal Influence
No one seems to know for sure just what role or how much influence Alf Landon had in the election of Nancy Landon Kassebaum to the U.S. Senate. But everyone thinks it was considerable. Paul Pendergast, a lawyer who managed the campaign of Democratic Congressman Bill Roy, Kassebaum's opponent, says that "whatever he would have done, it would have been quiet. He would have used the phone."
It's common knowledge in Kansas that Landon counts a number of newspaper publishers as cronies. He doubtless cashed some due bills, though Landon himself stiffens at this suggestion. ("Did you ever know a publisher who had cronies? That's ridiculous.") Of the 40 dallies in the state, Landon says 37 supported his daughter, 20 on their editorial page. The local Topeka paper didn't support her in the primary, but did in the general election.
Also, there is Landon's influence in Kansas broadcasting. He owns or controls four stations around the state, including WREN in Topeka. The stations, plus oil interests, constitute the bulk of his fortune. Nancy's brother Jack, a year and half younger than she, runs a family station in Ft. Collins, Col. A third Landon child, Peggy Anne, is by Landon's first wife, who died. Peg is 16 years older than Nancy.
Until her election to the Senate a few weeks ago, Nancy Kassebaum's only other elective office was on the Maize, Kan. school board. It is a remarkable political leap, Alf Landon's daughter or not. It would be a mistake to think of her as a political innocent. By all accounts she waged a canny campaign.
Near the end a financial disclosure controversy made her fall seriously behind in the polls - something her father hotly denies to this day. News and tougher TV ads were distributed. Some of Senators Bob Dole's tough campaign workers came in to help. She began to go after Royh himself instead of his policies. It worked. She won by by 90,000 votes.
"There was pressure on me to be more aggresive," she says. "I never thought I was that far behind. Yes, the financial thing hurt. But also there was the latent feeling of whether a woman could really handle the job. So I had to show them."
In nearly the same breath that she quotes Edmund Burke (on serving both your conscience and your constitutents), Nancy Kassebaum can say: "In general I had a hard time getting the right TV stride. My TV there started out soft."
Kassebaum was always interested in politics, says her father, coming in again. he is squinting down to see if she agrees. "She probably cut her eye teeth on that Washington newsletter . . . names escape me . . . oh, yes, the Kiplinger. She was always reading as a child."
"I liked biographies a lot," says Kassebaum.
"I'm talking about the newsmagazines," says her dad. Eavesdropping by Vent
As early as age 10, she and Jack were out working on local Kansas campaigns. "We'd distribute literature, appear with dad. here at home I'd frequently eavesdrop." She has suddenly lit with a memory. "See that vent over there? My room was right above it. I used to lie awake at night listening to the most marvelous conversations."
None of this is to suggest that politics was the inevitable way of things for Nancy Kassebaum. "It was never something I remotely figured I might grow up to do. Even a year ago I wouldn't have thought it possible. I have four kids." When she and her husband, Philip Kassebaum, an attorney and businessman, separated, her needs changed, she says. She went to Washington for a year and worked for Sen. James Pearson (R-Kan.) whose seat she is now filling. "That pulled some things together." Still, she "never figured on this."
"I can honestly say that if I were still married, I would not be going to the U.S Senate!"
Can here going be viewed as any kind of vindiction of the Landon ravages of 1936? (Her father's ill-timed run ended in one of the worst Republican defeats in history, he carried only Maine and Vermont.) Landon snorts the question away. His daughter doesn't.
"Well, it's not an attempt to vindicate. But I think it's something I'm very personally proud of. It's carrying on . . . of a profession, you might say." She hesitates. "Not really a profession, though, since Dad only ran for national office that one time. That's the thing about him. He stayed out of it more than he was in it."
Landon has gotten upduring this last and gone to a table behind his chair. He extracts a cigarette from a top drawer. "Don't tell," he says, somewhere between a plea and an order. "I'm surprised he's not bumming them," sayd Nancy out of earshot. Reportedly, Mrs. Landon despaired years ago of trying to get here husband to quit.
One might think son Jack would be the family standard-bearer. "Jack was never interested," Kassebaum says. "He told me, 'Nance, I think you're crazy, but I'll help you.'"
The old man is asked if he intends to visit his daughter in Washington this winter, should she invite him. The way the question is phrased proves a terrible mistake. "I don't think i quite need an invitation," Landon says stonily. A minute later, though, he agrees Washington is too far. "I know they've got these fast airplanes now . . ." He lets it trial off. "Look, I intend to be 92 years old in a few months." There was a time when Alf Landon said his goal was to reach 90. Now he takes them one by one.
Alf Landon, twice governor, remains a passionate Kansan. "I think that's his real strength," Kassebaum says. "I mean, for all his knowledge of the world . . . " She suddenly stops.
"Hey, you've never been to Europe, have you?"
"Don't need to neither."
"In fact, wasn't your only trip abroad that time to Peru for Roosevelt?"
He nods. "I don't see where all this traveling outside the country by congressmen that I read about does much to improve our national life." The Great Train Ride
Though Alf Landon is in his tenth decade, his memory for the esoterica of political campaigns is amazing. He can startle you with vote counts at the 1912 Bull Moose convention in Chicago. He and his father had attended the Republican convention that year and walked out when Taft's men manipulated the nomination. He speaks of Robert La Follette and "TR," as if they had come by for cigars and whiskey yesterday.
He says he remembers every detail of '36, too, when he trained across America as the Great Budget Balancer, the "Kansas Coolidge" (never his name), taking on "the Champ" in his prime; 1936 was just one of those elections that could not have been won by any opposition.
This afternoon, though, memory has a hard time serving up '36. "Oh, that was a long time ago." he says, closing his eyes. His left hand freezes in mid-gesture - a milky claw.
The talk is over: Alf Landon has gone over to the fireplace to fetch his hat and coat. It is quite a hat - bright orange with ear flaps, which he promptly jerks down. He wrestles on the coat.
"There's a lot of voodooism in American politics," he says, his parting shot. "And logistics. Sometimes you have to know when to get away."
That's why Alf Landon is going outdoors, probably to the barn. The back of a horse is the only place he wants to be.
At the door, Nancy Kassebaum comes close. "By the way," she says, "Dad was wrong. I really was behind in the polls." Grin. "I'll see you in Washington."