Even now, 40 years later, the death of Jerry Litton can still jolt you — even those of us who never knew him.
Litton was the Missouri congressman from Chilicothe who won the 1976 Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate going away. That night, he stepped aboard a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron at the Chillicothe Municipal Airport to head to a victory party in Kansas City.
A crankshaft shattered followed takeoff. The left engine failed. The plane dropped like a stone, killing the congressman, his wife, two children and the pilot who was flying with his son seated next to him in the cockpit.
An unspeakable tragedy it was — perhaps for all of us. A lot of people, including Litton himself, believed the one-time cattleman was headed to the White House.
“He was on a path to fulfill his dream,” says Kristi Wyatt, a former top aide to Litton who now works at the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
Litton, who was 39 when he died, was an LBJ-like whirling dervish of a human being, prone to 24-hour workdays — I’ve got witnesses — and stopping by bowling alleys at 1 a.m. just to shake a few hands.
On Capitol Hill, Litton’s office was often open so late into the evening that security guards thought he employed two shifts of staffers.
Litton didn’t just walk into a room. He bolted through the door. Small talk? Not for Jerry. He had work to do, notes to write, and that’s what he was about all the time.
“It was tough to keep up with him,” recalled Steve Jacques, who was 21 when he traveled with the congressman during that fateful summer of 1976. “He said a couple of times during the campaign, ‘If you’re eating or sleeping, you’re wasting time.’ ”
A conservative Democrat with a powerful intellect, Litton had something else going for him. He was one of the first multimedia communicators who used radio and a popular TV show — “Dialogue with Litton” — to propel himself into the Missouri consciousness.
It wasn’t boring, either. Kansas City Public Television ran a feature on Litton a while back that featured snippets from his conversations with some of the leading politicians of the day. They were entertaining because Litton was so fast on the draw.
In a conversation with then-presidential contender Jimmy Carter, Litton bemoaned the proliferation of federal agencies.
Yes, Carter noted, Congress created 84 just last year.
“It was an off-year,” Litton cracked.
Another time, Hubert Humphrey was talking about the popularity of a farm bill. “We had 100 congressmen at the head table that day,” Litton replied. “I haven’t seen that many congressmen together since the pay-raise vote.”
The TV shows were taped before a live audience with 1,200 of his constituents. They were shot with three cameras, immediately edited, then sent to TV stations across the state.
“His communication skills were beyond anybody else’s at the time,” Jacques recalled.
Litton won a seat in Congress in 1972. Just four years later, he was ready for a Senate run and launched the campaign that wound up taking his life. Early on, Litton’s name ID was said to be in the single digits.
That turned around quickly. In the race to succeed retiring Sen. Stuart Symington, Litton topped Symington’s son, Jim Symington, former Gov. Warren Hearnes and even a Kansas City mayor at the time, Charles Wheeler. Litton won with 45 percent to 26 percent for the second-place Hearnes.
After his death, Hearnes became the Democratic nominee and lost to Republican Jack Danforth in November in a race that began Danforth’s march to the top ranks of American politics.
But Litton loyalists insist Danforth would not have won that race if the congressman had lived.
“Throughout my life, (working for Litton) has been the credential that has mattered more than anything else,” Wyatt told me. “He was like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. If you could make it with him, with his standards and his bar,” you could work for anybody.
Wyatt was the last person to speak to Litton before he boarded the Beechcraft that night, and she still recalls the conversation. Speaking on the phone from Kansas City, Wyatt ran down voting totals from targeted counties across the state.
“I’ll never forget what he said,” Wyatt recalled. “ ‘Damn, we’re just not going to win, we’re going to win big. See you in half an hour.’ ”