ALF M. LANDON'S career as a practicing politician ended over a half-century ago when he ran for president against Franklin D. Roosevelt and carried only Maine and Vermont. Given the situation in 1936, Mr. Landon might have been the only member of his party capable of winning even those states; two years earlier, running for a second term as governor of Kansas, he'd been the sole Republican to win gubernatorial reelection.

In any event, he went back home ("We preferred the comparatively simple but more intelligent life of Kansas to Washington," he said), built himself an uncharacteristically grand house and resumed an active life as a businessman who had made a fair amount of money drilling oil wells.

That might have been the end of him as a public figure, but it proved instead to be a beginning. In the years following his famous defeat, Mr. Landon became something of an elder statesman of his party. That's a description often applied indiscriminately to a wide range of former officeholders who have nothing to recommend them but their formerness; but in Mr. Landon's case it meant something, both to him and to the people who consulted him.

He was not a man for committees or commissions, nor was he a political kingmaker. But he read and thought about the issues of the day, and he wasn't shy about speaking out on them. Reporters who visited him in Kansas would come back with great chunks of opinion -- paragraph after paragraph of it -- sometimes quirky, always well expressed and often right on the money. "This fellow Carter," he told David Broder in 1977. "He really puzzles me. He tells Congress he's going to take his case to the people, but he smiles when he says it. He needs to be like Teddy Roosevelt."

Mr. Landon knew that there are times when a person in his position can be of great service to the country. One was in the early 1960s, when John F. Kennedy was seeking to lower trade barriers between the United States and Western Europe. Mr. Landon, who had been associated with the liberal wing of his party ever since he'd campaigned for TR's Bull Moose Party in 1914, spoke out repeatedly in favor of breaking down trade barriers, to the point that some questioned his Republicanism. He replied that partisan considerations were irrelevant when such vital matters were involved.

He was trusted, listened to and respected to the end of his long life. President Reagan, who helped celebrate Mr. Landon's 100th birthday last month, spoke for many when he said on the occasion of his death this week, "It was a special comfort to me to know he was just a phone call away.