August 3 1976: Jerry Litton
October 16 2000: Mel Carnahan
Missouri, the Summer of ’76: Jerry Litton was campaigning for the seat vacated by Stuart Symington, the longtime incumbent. As is often the case when such vacancies occurred, political ambitions were unleashed all around, and Litton had fought it out against two equally-well-known opponents in the Democratic primary. In what was the most expensive political campaign ever in Missouri, Jerry Litton spent nearly a million dollars in the primary to best former governor Warren Hearnes and the congressman-son of the incumbent senator, taking 45% of the vote in the three-cornered contest. Early returns indicated a big Litton win in the August 3, 1976 primary, and Litton and his wife Sharon and children Linda and Scott piled into a Beechcraft with long-time friend and pilot Paul Rupp and Rupp’s son, for the twenty-minute flight to Kansas City.
They never made it. Litton’s last words, via telephone to a campaign worker before he left his home were "we're going to win it big." As Time Magazine reported the accident:
As the blue and white, twin-engine Beechcraft Baron lifted off the choppy runway in Chillicothe, Mo., one evening last week, its occupants had good cause for jubilation. Millionaire Congressman Jerry Litton had just scored a dramatic upset in Missouri's Democratic senatorial primary. Now, accompanied by family and friends, he was headed for a victory party with 1,500 campaign workers in Kansas City's Hilton Plaza Inn. Suddenly, less than 200 ft. off the ground, one of the Beechcraft's engines apparently went dead. The plane banked sharply to the left, then plunged to earth. It tore through a barbed-wire fence, crashed in a soybean field and burst into flames that shot 30 ft. high. Amid the ashes and wreckage, sheriffs deputies found the bodies of Litton, 39, his wife Sharon, 36, and their two children. With them were their longtime friend and pilot Paul Rupp Jr. and his 18-year-old son. It was a ghastly finale to what had been one of the greatest days of Litton's political career.
According to the NTSB’s accident investigation, the probable causes of the crash were structural. The aircraft’s engine failed on initial climb, resulting in a stall; the likely source of the faulure was engine fatigue, specifically a crack in the #7 crankshaft. However, the NTSB also noted that pilot Phil Rupp’s failure to retract the landing gear and maintain flying speed contributed to the crash, though how he was supposed to maintain flight speed absent a working engine defies us.
Jerry Litton had been on the fast-track to political stardom. Coming from very poor roots in rural Daviess County, Missouri, he had made a fortune in cattle-breeding, and by the time he reached the US House in 1972 at the age of 35 he was worth millions. Litton represented northwest Missouri, generally conservative country but also country that had sent right-leaning Democrats to Congress for years, even as it voted Republican for president. He made headlines by working with Republican Lowell Weicker on reforms to address executive abuses of power after the Watergate scandal. Along with youthful Arkansas attorney general candidate Bill Clinton, his name was circulated as a possible future president among national Democratic insiders. Indeed, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter had readily observed during his own successful presidential campaign that Litton would one day be president. Of all the accidental deaths of rising political stars, this is among the most intriguing.
The Republicans scored a rare political gain that fall, as state attorney general John Danforth picked up a seat in Democratic landslide of 1976; he was one of four Republicans to do so. The Democrats had nominated the damaged Hearnes in Litton’s place, and Danforth buried the former governor in an avalanche of cash and charisma. The cash and charisma might not have been necessary; veteran political writer Michael Barone observed in 1977 that “Hearnes’ candidacy meant that the November contest was all but over” before it started. He had once been a good vote-getter, but had left office long ago under a cloud of scandal.
Danforth was succeeded as attorney general by his assistant, Republican John Ashcroft, who would go on to become governor of Missouri in 1984. When Danforth retired in 1994, Ashcroft won his seat in the US Senate and his lieutenant-governor, Mel Carnahan, succeeded to the office. Six years later, in 2000, the two men would face each other for the same US Senate seat sought by Jerry Litton a quarter-century before.
The national elections of 2000 were divisive, and Missouri was a critical seat for determining who would control the US Senate. Carnahan was elected to the United States Senate, defeating incumbent senator John Ashcroft by a 48,000 vote margin. His successor as governor, Lieutenant-Governor Roger Wilson (D), appointed Carnahan’s widow, Jean, to fill the term of office. Ashcroft, now ousted from the US Senate, was named US attorney general by newly-elected President George W. Bush. Ashcroft became the principal architect of the PATRIOT ACT, passed by the US Congress in the wake of the September 11 2001 terrorist attack on the United States.
Conspiracy theorists contend that the crash was followed by a similar crash that killed notable liberal icon and antiwar Democrat, Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, in the closing days of the 2002 election campaign. These two crashes are used to feed a general conspiracy theory of liberal purge through undocumented and unsubstantiated sabotage.
Notable aside: On September 14, 2001, an ordained Episcopal priest presided at the memorial service at the National Cathedral for the victims of the September 11 suicide plane attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington. The presiding Episcopal priest? Former US Senator John Danforth.