Presidential historians wonder with the two who died early in their term what they would have been like had they lived just a bit longer through it. William Henry Harrison lived merely a month after delivering one of the longest inaugural addresses in the cold rain, while James A. Garfield was only able to get his appointments confirmed before he was shot by deranged office seeker Charles J. Guiteau. Today I have a lesser-known example of lost potential, Jerry Lon Litton.
In 1956, Litton, the 19-year old national secretary of Future Farmers of America, visits former President Truman to invite him to speak at the FFA convention. What is supposed to be a 15 minute conversation between them extends to two hours (Mertens). Truman is deeply impressed with the young man. He advises him to start his own business and run for public office (Jolley).
Litton joins the family’s successful cattle ranch in his hometown of Chillicothe and expands upon its success, gets married, and has two children. He is a natural people person, being able to relate to them regardless of what station in life they are in. This serves him well when he seeks a seat in Congress. In 1972, President Nixon is running for reelection. In Missouri’s 6th district, moderate conservative Democrat Bill Hull has had enough. He is 66 years old, his last few elections have been quite competitive, and the direction of the Democratic Party only seems to be moving further left with the nomination of George McGovern. Running in his place is Litton, who is by contrast young and moderately liberal. He had narrowly defeated the Democratic Party establishment’s preferred candidate in the primary, and he becomes immensely popular after winning the election.
Litton as Congressman
To regularly communicate with his constituents, Litton forms the Sixth District Congressional Club, which in 1974 he expands into a TV show, Dialogue with Litton. On this program he discusses the concerns of constituents, answers their unscripted questions, and has various guests and makes a great effort to restore people’s faith in the American system of government during a decade marked by disappointment and disillusionment. His guests include future President Jimmy Carter, Senators Hubert Humphrey and Thomas Eagleton, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Political leaders who meet Litton walk away impressed. Future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) offered this praise, “I’ve been in Congress 22 years and I have never yet met a freshman member of Congress that could equal Jerry Litton” (Historic Missourians). Jimmy Carter expresses his belief that he would one day be president. He is a hard worker and a good listener, and his voters know it.
Although Litton won by less than ten points in 1972, in 1974 he wins reelection with a whopping 79% of the vote. This is a much higher margin than his predecessor had ever won and is the highest margin of any Missouri incumbent that year despite him representing a district that on paper is Republican. Litton has a moderately liberal record (MC-Index: 26%) and a populist streak, which shows when he opposes a pay raise for members of Congress while the public struggles with high inflation. He is also a strong advocate for farmers. Reporter Robert Macy, who covered his Senate race, recalled, “You had to be told, or you read someplace, that he was a Democrat. He wasn’t this type of person that wore the party label on their vest. He was the type of politician and the type of person that fit in well with presidents or the farmer down the road. And equally liked by both of them” (Newton).
In 1976, he wants to expand the scope of his service, so he runs for the Senate. However, the competition for the primary is formidable; one of the candidates is Jim Symington, a member of Congress who has been in office longer and also happens to be the retiring senator’s son. Another is Warren Hearnes, who had served as Missouri’s governor from 1965 to 1973. Litton runs a hands-on, constituent focused campaign; he tours the state, hosting small “Dialogue with Litton” sessions. On the day of the primary, he prevails with 45%, winning by almost 20 points over Hearnes, who took second.
Jerry Litton seems too good to be true, and fate cruelly ensured this to be so. On the night of his primary victory, he and his family board a plane to attend the victory party. However, the plane’s engine fails and only nineteen seconds after takeoff, the plane crashes into a soybean field in a blazing inferno with all on board killed. He was only 39. Also on board was Litton’s pilot friend Paul Rupp and his son, Rupp Jr. The tragedy for the people of Chillicothe is immeasurable…their favorite son and his family are gone in an instant.
Litton is replaced on the ticket with Hearnes, who goes on to lose the election to Republican John Danforth, who himself is a figure who reaches across the aisle. The deaths of Litton and his family were a great loss for Chillicothe, a great loss for Missouri, and a great loss for America. His “Dialogue with Litton” reminds me a bit of conversational podcasts as opposed to partisan news, acerbic opinion shows, and the acrimonious point-counterpoint format. Tragically, Litton would not be the last Democratic Senate nominee from Missouri to die in a plane crash; in 2000, Mel Carnahan would meet the same fate right before the election and strangely, he wins. Fortunately, his wife, Jean, was not on board and served temporarily in his place.
Jolley, L.R. Jerry L. Litton. Historic Missourians.
Mertens, R. (2012, October 3). Remembering Jerry Litton. College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources.
Newton, K. (2016, August 1). Jerry Litton, and what might have been. News-Press Now.
Rep. Litton dies in plane crash, as he wins voting. (1976, August 5). St. Petersburg Times.