Every political reporter remembers his or her first time — that is, the first time they sat with a presidential candidate in a car cutting through the dark New Hampshire night listening to the dreams of a man who wanted to lead the nation.
For me, it was November 1979, with the Cold War raging, militant students occupying the American embassy in Tehran and Jimmy Carter in the White House. The candidate I was profiling was ten-term Illinois Rep. John Anderson, who was animated by the outlandish fantasy that he had a chance to defeat Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination.
Anderson, who would launch an independent bid for president later in that campaign cycle, died Sunday at age 95. Reflecting on his career and legacy reminds me how much has been lost in American politics over the past four decades.
With his thick white hair, his oversized, horn-rimmed glasses and an earnest manner, Anderson could seem like an Old Testament prophet in modern garb. Whether he was warning about “missile madness” or pumping for a 50-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax, Anderson had by late 1979 become a man without a party.
For all of his support for abortion rights and campaign reform, Anderson was too much a balanced-budget Republican from Rockford, Illinois, to fit into a Democratic Party in which Ted Kennedy was challenging Carter for not being liberal enough.
Yet with the coming of Reagan, Anderson, who had chaired the House Republican Conference, had fallen out of step with the hawkish, moralistic tenor of the GOP.
That November 1979 weekend, I traveled with Anderson to watch him get exactly six votes in a Maine Republican straw poll that was won by George H.W. Bush. At the party dinner before the nonbinding vote, Anderson whispered, “This is a hellhole. I would sneak out, but I’m afraid they are going to introduce me and someone would notice I was gone.”
The late 1970s were still a time when politicians in both parties could evolve in Congress as they learned more about issues and how the government actually works. For Anderson, who came to Washington in 1961 and was soon a Barry Goldwater supporter, the evolution was gradual.
A key moment came in 1968 when, with the cities burning after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Anderson cast the deciding vote in the House Rules Committee to send an open housing bill to the floor.
Anderson explained his vote in an emotional floor speech. “We are not simply knuckling under to pressure or listening to the voices of unreasoning fear and hysteria if we seek to do that which we believe in our hearts is right and just,” he said.
The Vietnam War offered Anderson another chance to learn and grow from his mistakes and those of his colleagues.
He told me in 1979 that being informed as a member of the Republican House leadership about the secret Cambodian bombing was a “watershed.” Anderson added, “I look back on the whole Vietnam era with no particular satisfaction. I wish I had been prescient.”
American history — in case you haven’t noticed — does not allow for do-overs. But it is worth contemplating the possible implications of Anderson’s fervent advocacy of a gasoline tax to reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
At minimum, a culture of conservation would have been built into our economy long before we began to worry about global warming and the melting of the icecaps. And perhaps over the last few decades, American policymakers would not have felt as beholden to Saudi Arabia and as covetous of Iraq’s oil.
Anderson dropped out of the Republican race in April 1980 to embark on what, in hindsight, seems to have been his inevitable fate — running as an independent for president. Unlike other third-party candidates like Ross Perot and George Wallace, Anderson even recruited a serious vice presidential running mate, former Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey.
But Anderson’s quixotic campaign dramatically illustrated the “wasted vote” problem that has since deterred independents like Michael Bloomberg from running for president.
An early September 1980 Los Angeles Times poll showed Anderson running even with Carter (26 percent) and a bit behind Reagan (32 percent). But the preference question was framed with this introduction, “If you thought John Anderson had a real chance to be president of the United States …”
With Carter boycotting the initial 1980 debate because he did not want to risk losing support to Anderson, the Illinois legislator faced off with Reagan in the only fall presidential debate that did not feature both major-party contenders.
It was a civilized affair, even though Anderson conceded in his closing statement, “We have disagreed, I believe, on virtually every … issue.”
Anderson also warned, “A generation of office seekers has tried to tell the American people that they could get something for nothing. It’s been a time, therefore, of illusion and false hopes — and the longer it continues, the more dangerous it becomes. We’ve got to stop drifting.”
Excluded from the final Reagan-Carter debate, Anderson limped home with 6.6 percent of the vote. But he scored in the double digits in all six New England states, with his best showing at 15.2 percent in Massachusetts.
In a scorched-earth era dominated by uncompromising partisan zeal, it is worth pausing to hail the memory of John Anderson — a passionate moderate who radiated intelligence, sincerity and honor. His kind is so rare and so missed today.