Remarks at the Jerry Litton Memorial Dinner in Kansas City, Missouri
To Charlie and Mildred, and Clifford and Vivian, and Senator Eagleton and my good friend Warren Hearnes, Joe Teasdale, others who are here this evening who are interested in politics and in government, are interested in hopes and dreams, who are interested in friendship and frankness.
It's a great honor to me to participate and particularly to be compared to Jerry Litton.
I was across the river this afternoon, in Kansas City, Kansas, and I told them that there were some great political figures in this country. But that at this particular time I would rather have the votes that Whitey Herzog could get, than anybody that I know of in this region. And I know that all of you are proud of the kind of spirit that has been demonstrated by the Kansas City Royals.
It's a spirit of competition, and a spirit of success, and a spirit of appreciation, and a sense of bringing people together.
More than a year ago, when I was beginning my own campaign for the nomination for President of the United States, I came here at the invitation of Congressman Jerry Litton, to participate one Sunday in what was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life—Dialogues with Litton. I never dreamed what it would be. But I was looking for exposure and I was looking for experience—learning about politics. And I came. I could not believe that a thousand people would pay a fee to come together on a Sunday afternoon to ask questions of a Congressman.
It was an unbelievable interrelationship between him and the people who sat around a tremendous ballroom and asked question after question after question. To him and to me. And to have it recorded on tape and later played back to viewers who had grown up in several states who had perhaps their first opportunity to really see tough cross-examination given to those who actually represent them in government. There was an intimacy about it that was startling.
I thought a lot about that meeting when I went back home to Plains, Georgia. How distant we often draw away from people who have trust in us once we get in office. But Jerry Litton had, with a great sensitivity, figured out a unique way, unprecedented in the history of this country, to stay close to folks back home. And he let them feel, not that he was reaching down to them or telling them about distant happenings in Washington, but that they were part of it, and they were helping him make the decisions. It was a very great experience.
And when I got back home I told my wife, Rosalynn, "I have just met a young man who shocked me and who startled me and who inspired me. And I believe that someday he has a good chance to be President of the United States. Because there is something about him that is unique." I never had known him before. I had heard about him.
As soon as I made my official announcement as a candidate for President, Jerry Litton endorsed me. Now, I don't criticize the rest of the Missouri delegation when I say that he was the first one who did. And we had only had a brief encounter, relatively speaking, but there was a kind of mutuality about it, of friendship and trust. And it's a compliment to me that the spirit was built up between us.
Jerry Litton was blessed by his family, as you well know. His mother and father, and his wife and children, they were a kind of a team. And I can see the benefit in it. Because a lot of times in politics, as you well know, it's kind of a lonely thing. Particularly when you are just getting started—running for Congress or running for governor or running for President.
Most of the time, in those early stages, when you say, "I want to be Congressman of the Sixth District," and then you walk away, you know there are a lot of jokes, and kind of a smirking and you feel very humble. To walk in front of a service station and talk to five people and say, "Would you vote for me for Congress?" And quite often you feel that you are not quite worthy in their eyes. You think more of yourself, but you're kind of sure that they don't think you're qualified to go to Washington.
But the family that's there—your wife and others who have confidence in you—always provide a base, a kind of a solid base that's unshakable. And you can take the ups and downs, endorsements and endorsements of your opponents, favorable newspaper editorials and those that are very critical, success in a speech and a speech that fumbles. And with the bad editorials, and the endorsements for your opponent, and the speeches that fail, it's always great to come home to a wife who, like Jerry Litton's constituents, was an equal partner in the process.
I've talked this afternoon about families. And how important it is for every decision of government—international affairs, transportation, taxation, housing, education, welfare, health, crime control—to be designed to keep families together. Because when the family is strong, the community is strong, the nation is strong. And you can minimize the responsibility placed on government. Because many times, when the family fails, is exactly when the government has to come in, in a fumbling way, to substitute for what the family provides.
Jerry Litton and his family—three generations at least—provided an inspiration to us, and an inspiration to him. He was born, like I was, on an isolated farm—before the Roosevelt-Truman era—without electricity, without indoor plumbing. But it didn't hurt us. And he became, at a very early age, a young man who made the best of his opportunities. There was not a handicap or an obstacle that caused him to be discouraged or to withdraw from the competition of an increasingly adult world. He went to high school, he was a president of a National Honor Society. He joined the FFA like I did as a high school boy. And he not only succeeded at his own high school— I was secretary of the Plains High School FFA—but he went on beyond that and became president of all the Future Farmers of Missouri. And he wasn't satisfied with that. He went on and became a national officer.
Not too long ago, I came to Kansas City to speak to 18,000 Future Farmers who represent the hundreds of thousands all over the country, and to think about the intense commitment to the principles of agriculture and its future that's required to be a national officer. Almost overwhelming.
But it was a common thing for that sort of success in the life of Jerry Litton. He began to make speeches when he was young. Because he was so timid, and he saw that as a potential obstacle as he grew up. And he kind of took lessons within the Future Farmers just to learn how to speak. And by the time he was 19 years old he was being paid to speak. He would go and make speeches at graduation exercises, and travel around the country and by the time he got to college he had accumulated $15,000 to help his family pay his way through school with his speaking ability. His common subject was farmers and agriculture and rural life and the commonality of purpose and challenge and opportunity between those who live in the great cities of our country and those who live in the great farmlands of our country.
When he got to college he studied, at the University of Missouri, as you know, agriculture and journalism. Because he had in the meantime become a professional radio announcer—his speaking qualities were so good. He joined a fraternity. And he was elected president of his fraternity, which is not a remarkable experience, but he was elected president of his fraternity when he was a freshman. I've never heard of that before. And those of you who are members of fraternities—I went to the Naval Academy where they didn't have fraternities—but those of you who are members of fraternities know that that's an almost unheard of thing. For a freshman to be the president of a fraternity. And those young men must have recognized something in him at the University of Missouri that was extraordinary.
His father had a great deal of bad luck, being injured as a truck driver, and having been laid up, almost completely physically incapacitated for seven years, and later hurt again, so when Jerry came home from college he had a partnership that existed throughout the rest of his life.
And he didn't set as a goal for himself having a mediocre or an average ranch operation. He knew about a new breed of cattle, the French Charolais, and he told his father, "Let's buy the best." And they bought the best they could afford. But he still wasn't satisfied. And in those embryonic days, with the use of computers, they analyzed the qualities of every calf, and every brood cow and every bull, and they slowly improved upon a superlative breed of cattle. Until, in just a few years, starting from practically nothing, with a $20,000 loan, he and his father, working together with the rest of their family, built up a cattle herd that was known throughout the world.
And then Jerry decided he wanted to go to Congress. In fact, he decided when he was about 19 years old that he wanted to go to Congress when he was 35. So guess what happened. When he was 35 years old, he was elected to Congress. And because he wanted to avoid any conflict of interest he decided to sell his interest in the ranch—it was worth a little more than $20,000—in fact a little more than $3/2 million. But he severed his conflict in the business world and gave his life to the people that he represented in government.
He went to Congress as a freshman. He started the kind of career that he had spelled out an early date, when as an FFA officer he visited my favorite President, Harry Truman. He went there with a fifteen minute appointment and he stayed two hours. And they talked about the greatness of this country and the need for unity and the obstacles that could be overcome.
And Jerry Litton told Harry Truman about his future desire to be in government. And Harry Truman said, "Well, you can go one of two ways. You can go through the courthouse, start at the lower level, work your way up, become part of the political establishment. Or you can go into business and launch your career based on a direct non-political interrelationship with voters." So Jerry Litton got to Congress. He had taken Truman's second piece of advice, and he had i direct, unrestrained interrelationship with the voters who sent him there.
In his first election, he won a tough battle against several opponents— five or six—with an overwhelming victory. In 1974 he ran for reelection and won with 79 percent of the vote. In the whole history of the district, the highest that anyone has ever gotten before was 64 percent.
Jerry Litton got to the Congress and he made it very clear to everyone as first that he would not take orders from anyone in the congressional structure. Tip O'Neil, who is very likely to be the next Speaker of the House, commented on Jerry Litton while he was still a freshman. He said, "I've been in the Congress 22 years and I have never yet met a freshman member of Congress that could equal Jerry Litton."
Well, I think you see very clearly that Jerry Litton's successes were not accidents. He owed his success to his friends who had confidence in him. And he never betrayed that confidence. And the early success and commitment to principles that never changed. And he owed his success to a great exuberance. He didn't trudge through life, plodding one step at a time. He ran through life with a great happiness and a joy. He never let a potential obstacle deter him. In fact, sometimes I think he welcomed it. The tough battles, the uphill fights, challenged him and let him draw on the strength that came from the support of his family and friends.
That is the kind of politics that ought to exist more often in our country. Tonight we come to pay tribute to him. I'm saddened by it. I called his parents as soon as I heard about the tragedy. But tonight is not a time for sorrow. We've been through that sorrowful period. God's blessed us by having had a chance to know Jerry Litton. Or to know about him. And I hope that the few remarks that I've made tonight will impress on each one of us, including myself, some of those unchanging characteristics of human potential that should inspire us all to be a little better. To set a slightly higher standard in our own lives. Not to be satisfied with mediocrity, but excellence. Not to be concerned about the problems of our country, but to recognize its present and potential greatness.
He was deeply concerned about one aspect of politics which prevails now perhaps. He got there, as you know, in the midst of Watergate. And his first major test as a freshman was when President Nixon ordered the Secretary of Agriculture to reveal the income tax returns of three million farmers to examine them without their permission. And Jerry Litton thought that was wrong to let the Secretary of Agriculture look at those income tax returns. So he started an uphill fight and he joined with a Republican senator from Connecticut and eventually they put so much pressure on the President of the United States—a freshman congressman from Missouri—that the President backed down. And one of the last remaining comments that Jerry Litton made was that the most devastating result of Watergate was the disillusionment of the American people, particularly young people, about our own government.
Well, Jerry Litton knows, I know, you know, that the American government is still clean and decent. It hadn't been damaged, the system hasn't. The problem has not been that the American people don't trust our leaders. The problem has been that some of our leaders haven't trusted the American people. But there has to be a mutuality of trust in order for us to derive the greatest strength in our own lives, individually, and in our own lives collectively—named the United States of America. Because we, collectively, are what our nation is.
And Jerry Litton saw that, I believe, as a farm boy at Chillicothe High School and at the University of Missouri and on the ranch, and in the Congress. And he decided to run for the Senate as you know. And the night the tragedy occurred he was the nominee of the Democratic Party for the United States Senate.
Well, we don't ever know what causes tragedies, or what God's purpose is on earth. But we do know that our own life here is transient. All of us. But what we leave behind is important. And although Jerry Litton may not have his family here to carry on in generations to come, he has us and other people who knew him. Who can maybe extract something, large or small, from him and let it be part of our own lives to pass on from one year to another.
It's hard for me to pick out some written phrase that might be appropriate. I have to admit that I had several suggestions from people who said, "Read this, this is what Jerry Litton meant to me." But one of the people who worked with Jerry Litton thought that Shakespeare would be the best source, and you've heard this repeated before. I'm going to take some poetic license and express it in the plural and let it apply to Jerry Litton and his whole family. This is from Shakespeare:
"When they shall die
Take them and cut them up in little stars
And they shall make the heavens so fine
That all the world will be in love with night."
NOTE: This dinner was held in memory of the Congressman who had been killed, with his family, in an airplane crash the night he had won the 1976 Democratic nomination for Senator from Missouri.
Jimmy Carter, Remarks at the Jerry Litton Memorial Dinner in Kansas City, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347574