THE LAST TIME a Kansas Republican ran for president, he got beat worse than Bob Dole did. But he got a terrific consolation prize. That was Gov. Alf Landon, who was invited to a life-enhancing Maryland dinner with various editors and executives of The Sunpapers at Baltimore's Southern Hotel in the aftermath of the 1936 election.
Landon had lost in one of the biggest landslides of all time. President Franklin D. Roosevelt got 61 percent of the popular vote and 523 electoral votes, to Landon's 37 percent and 8
The host at the dinner was H. L. Mencken, the notorious Evening Sun columnist and author. Mencken liked Landon and hated Roosevelt. He usually didn't let such considerations color his commentary. He usually criticized both presidential candidates with equal mockery and scorn.
But in 1936 he was a partisan fighter. He may have thought his effort would help Landon -- and spare him -- Mencken -- the embarrassment of having predicted a Landon victory. Some accused him of that. But while he thought early in 1936 that Roosevelt could be beaten, by mid-campaign he knew his hope was a forlorn one and that his friend was headed for defeat.
Landon himself thought he might win right up to Election Day. The magazine Literary Digest predicted on the basis of its polling that Landon would carry 32 states and win the electoral college by 370 to Roosevelt's 161. Landon even did some cabinet picking.
After the debacle, Mencken invited Landon to Baltimore. (Actually re-tendered an offer made during the campaign.) A famous eater as well as a famous writer, Mencken left the details of the menu up to the hotel staff. He said his only requirement was that it be ''a Maryland meal, cooked according to Maryland traditions and served with Maryland viands.''
Landon arrived for the meal on December 20. Mencken was the host. Among the guests were half a dozen top editors and executives of The Sunpapers and a few other dignitaries -- for instance the son of Democratic President Grover Cleveland, Baltimore lawyer Richard Cleveland, who had renounced the party of his forefathers to endorse Landon.
The menu was as follows:
Cocktails. Choice Chesapeake Bay oysters. Olives, stuffed celery and nuts. Terrapin a la Maryland. Maryland beaten biscuits. Sherry. Chicken a la Maryland. Cream sauce. Grilled bacon. Corn fritters. Potato croquets. Bordeaux. Maryland ham. Maryland hearts of lettuce. Maryland water ice. Champagne. Only the olives, nuts, sherry, bordeaux and champagne were non-Maryland.
If Landon was still depressed after his historic defeat, that meal and company did the trick. The next evening Landon spoke to the journalists' Gridiron Club in Washington. He was in rare form and fine fettle. He could laugh at himself. He told this story:
''The Kansas tornado is an old story. But let me tell you of one. It swept away first the barn, then the outbuildings. Then it picked up the dwelling and scattered it all over the landscape. As the funnel-shaped cloud went twisting its way out of sight, leaving nothing but splinters behind, the wife came to, to find her husband laughing. She angrily asked him, 'What are you laughing at, you darned old fool?' And the husband replied, 'The completeness of it.' ''
Good for what ails you
Now, some of you reading this no doubt were aghast at that menu for its unhealthiness. But back in those days men were men, portions were generous and ''lean cuisine'' was definitely an oxymoron. By my calculation, that meal provided Governor Landon with 3,000 calories (150 percent of today's recommended total for an entire day), 148 grams of fat (250 percent) and 560 milligrams of cholesterol (200 percent). Those totals do not include the values for the terrapin, which is not in any reference material at hand.
Bob Dole is known to live on a low-fat diet and to take drugs to lower his cholesterol (and anti-stomach-acid medicine daily). But meal such as the one that provided Governor Landon the sustenance and enjoyment to overcome the agonies of defeat is not necessarily life-threating. It may or may not have shortened Landon's life. Who can say? All we know is that that meal was the first of many consolations for Landon -- consolations that accumulated over the next 51 years, until he died October 12, 1987, at age 100.
So, Bob Dole, pack up your Provachol and Zantac and come to Baltimore for a real meal; enjoy, relax, laugh and look forward to many, many happy returns of the day.
Theo Lippman Jr. has taken many courses in U.S. political history but none in nutrition.
Pub Date: 11/07/96