A special primary election and what might have been

by

Kristi Smith Wyatt, Senior Vice President, Government Relations and Policy Development

The primary election in Missouri and Kansas is next Tuesday.  Hope you take the time to vote.

Every two years about this time, I feel a little sad and melancholy.  The approaching primary reminds me of the tragedy of an election night a long time ago… August  3, 1976.

Jerry Litton hired me a few days after I graduated from college.  I couldn’t believe it!  Jobs were scarce   and I was headed to Washington, D.C. to work in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Litton was the young, newly-elected U.S. Congressman from the Sixth District of Missouri (NE Missouri including Clay and Platte Counties) and he was on a roll.  He won two elections to the U.S. House of Representatives – ‘72 and ‘74 and then took the major step of announcing for the U.S. Senate – Senator Symington was retiring.  He was prepared for an uphill battle against former Governor Warren Hearnes and Congressman Jim Symington, son of the Senator.  Congressman Litton, the underdog, won convincingly.  But the night he won the Democratic primary, August  3, 1976, he and his family, wife Sharon and children Scott and Linda were killed in a plane crash outside of Chillicothe on the way to Kansas City for what was to be his victory party, our victory party. 

Many lives, including mine, would never be the same.     

So, what was so special about this guy?  He was a charismatic, self-made cattleman who was a force of nature.  A stand-out student leader at the University of Missouri and a national officer in the Future Farmers of America, he became a skilled orator who practiced  plain-speaking and told it like it was.

He and his parents were in the Charolais Cattle business where hard work and innovation made him a millionaire.  He believed in transparency and a bi-partisan approach to government… had as many Republicans in his camp as Democrats. During his first term, he developed an idea for a monthly meeting of constituents with the nation’s governmental leaders, conducted live in a theater-in-the-round format at a venue in the district.  

In short time this Congressional Club grew to  600 members who came together monthly to hear their Congressman and a national guest discuss issues and government in a spontaneous and candid format.  Guests were the political stars of the day – leaders like Congresswomen  Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm; Ag Secretary Earl Butts,  Presidential candidate  Jimmy Carter, Congressman and former star quarterback of the Buffalo Bills Jack Kemp,  Presidential hopefuls Scoop Jackson, Lloyd Bentsen and Mo Udall and many others.  He said it was “bringing government to the people.”

Thirty-four years ago, he figured out a way to record these events in Kansas City, edit them in D.C., get them back to Missouri and distributed to stations across the state… within 30 hours.  It was called Dialogue With Litton. It was a big hit – stations all over Missouri aired it as part of their public interest programming.

So, even after 34 years, I don’t dwell much on this.  It’s just too darn painful.  But yesterday, I was asked to participate in a video taping about Jerry Litton and his Dialogues with Litton for the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, a joint collection of the University of Missouri and the State Historical Society of Missouri, who are exploring this unique program and the rare glimpse into American political history it provides.

I participated with my friend Ed Turner, who ran the Litton congressional campaign, congressional office and one of Jerry’s very best friends. During the taping, we visited a side road on memory lane where I don’t usually go.  And once again, I realized, how fortunate I was to be so young in the midst of someone so great with all that potential (most agree he would have mounted a formidable run for the presidency).  I was lucky to have known him, luckier still to have learned what I did. Elected officials like him don’t come around often. Makes me think…

If not for a broken crankshaft on that Beach Baron, where would we be today?

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