John Anderson: The Nice Guy Syndrome

He's Washington's favorite Republican—bright, independent, articulate, thoughtful. Then why does nobody give his candidacy a chance?

One evening in early November, in the middle of a three-day campaign trip through New Hampshire and Maine with John Anderson, the ten-term congressman from Rockford, Illinois who somehow believes that he can become the first liberal Republican presidential nominee since Wendell Willkie, a reporter overheard a perplexing snatch of conversation between Anderson and his wife, Keke.

The Andersons sat in the front of a rented car, talking softly to other, seemingly oblivious to two reporters in the back seat. They had just left a restaurant reception where a paper salesman had asked Anderson why he was making this race for President. Anderson's answer had been perfectly acceptable: "I think the process of running for President is debilitating and demeaning, but the job would be exciting—charting a course for the nation." The conversation now seemed to trouble Anderson.

In the car, he said to his wife, "I keep hearing the question the guy in the restaurant asked: 'Why are you running for President? It's such a terrible job.' I wish I had a better answer."

Keke Anderson replied, "It's easy, John. You know why you decided you should run. Someone must address our pressing national problems."

"That's no answer," he said. "Jimmy Carter said that last time and look what he's done to reduce confidence in government. Why should they believe me this time?"

"John, stop selling yourself short," she said. "People know who you are and what you've done. Maybe not here in New Hampshire. But there are pockets of support."

Anderson said, almost to himself, "It's a tough question to answer. I just don't know."

There is an artificial quality to this conversation, almost as if it were a little domestic set piece designed to impress visiting reporters. Anderson's words were in perfect harmony with most of his previous actions, and yet, a gnawing feeling persists that no one can be as consistently high-minded and earnest as John Anderson appears to be.

These days, Anderson is Washington's favorite Republican. He has all the qualities that those who lie awake nights worrying over the fate of the republic want in a President. He is bright, articulate, independent, and thoughtful. Over the last decade or so, he has won a series of editorial plaudits for his courageous 1968 vote in support of open housing, his early criticisms of Richard Nixon over Watergate, his battles on behalf of campaign spending reform, and his current proposal, the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, for a 50-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax to discourage consumption. Anderson appeals to that elitist strain among Washington thinkers which asks the great unwashed of the electorate to send forth statesmen, not grasping, ambitious politicians.

Because of these qualities—or in spite of them—Anderson is as close as the politics of 1980 comes to a sure thing: he will lose his race for the Republican nomination—and he will probably lose badly.

Anderson's appeal is similar to that of his close friend and Democratic House colleague Morris Udall, who narrowly lost so many primaries to Jimmy Carter in 1976 that he became known as "second-place Mo." With little money, and virtually no base in the increasingly conservative Republican party, Anderson may very well come to bear the sobriquet "sixth-place John."

His hapless campaign is evidence to support those who have lamented over the way we choose our Presidents. It is difficult to find a parallel to Anderson—an active candidate for President who has the experience and the ability to serve well, who has the stage presence and the long record of public service to be elected, and yet has little chance of surviving even the early primaries.

Anderson makes little effort to hide his frustration. He displays the manner of a candidate who is banking on a strong personal sense of irony to see him through a difficult few months. In early November, he visited an electronics plant in Manchester, New Hampshire, where the plant manager had on his office wall more than thirty autographed pictures of presidential candidates who had toured the factory in recent years. Anderson dutifully went through the motions of shaking hands with bored workers, who viewed the candidate with all the curiosity that natives of New Guinea extend to the 103rd anthropologist to study them. In the midst of this, Anderson whispered, "Isn't this a ridiculous way to pick the man who will lead the country?"

The following morning, a Friday, he was in Portland, Maine, seated in the audience for a Republican dinner, at which Henry Kissinger was the featured speaker. The crowd was a reminder of the geriatric appeal of the Republican party—half of them seemed old enough to have voted for Alf Landon in 1936. Anderson looked up from his dinner of baked chicken and said, "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 Maine dinner was a prelude to another of those Saturday Republican "cattle shows" where all the GOP contenders—except Ronald Reagan, who boycotted them until he formally declared his candidacy—make brief speeches to the assembled throng, who then cast ballots for their favorites in a straw poll. This one was supposedly wired for Senator Howard Baker, who had the support of the newly elected Maine Republican senator, William Cohen. When he was in the House, Cohen was something of a protege of Anderson's, and this breach of loyalty—one of many Anderson has suffered in Congress—rankles.

On Saturday, driving through pouring rain to give his speech to the Republican convocation, Anderson affected a jaunty manner. "I'm approaching this great event with great aplomb," he said. "I know I'm going to lose. And, in the immortal words of Rhett Butler, "Frankly, I don't give damn."

Fifteen minutes later, Anderson was standing on the podium before 1000 Maine Republicans. His physical appearance was distinctive—a thin but erect fifty-seven-year-old body shadowed by heavy glasses and a crop of totally white hair. David Emery, thirty-one-year-old local Republican congressman and one of Anderson's two active supporters in the House, was supposed to introduce him, but he was nowhere to be found.

Before a large crowd, Anderson can be a fiery speaker, with perfect timing and a voice that rises and falls for emphasis, even though in ordinary conversation he sounds more like Jason Robards than William Jennings Bryan. This time, Anderson pulled out all the rhetorical stops, but it did not quiet the steady undertone of conversation. He carried on gamely even when his voice grew raspy and hoarse midway through the twenty-minute speech.

His words are worth noting since they provided a strong counterpoint to the conservative shibboleths of contemporary Republican politics. A few excerpts help capture both his rhetorical style and the liberal alternative he is trying to offer GOP voters.

On leadership: "It will take more than hortatory expressions about leadership to restore our flagging national fortunes. The next President will not be able, like the legendary King Canute, to stretch out his hands and command economic tides to stand still."

On defense: "About 400 of our warheads could destroy 70 percent of Soviet industry and, in the process, kill 75 million Soviet citizens ... Let us strengthen our commitment to a strong NATO, but let us not be totally overcome with a new missile madness that yields to the mindless renewal of unrestricted competition in building ever new strategic systems."

On energy: "Today, under the present administration, we seem to be very quietly and very submissively paying tribute to the extortionist demands of the OPEC oil ministers. I have suggested that rather than permitting them the privilege ... we should be willing to tax the consumption of gasoline in this country." (This is a reference to what Anderson calls his "50/50 plan"—a 50-cent gas tax to pay for a 50 percent reduction in Social Security taxes. With scant credit to Anderson, the Carter Administration is now seriously considering this proposal.)

There are other issues in Anderson's campaign—some of which he obviously did not want to impress upon a conservative audience. His is a lonely voice among Republican presidential candidates in support of the SALT II treaty and in opposition to the MX missile. He endorses President Carter's call for a windfall profits tax on the oil industry. He has also consciously aligned himself with the feminist movement. He talks about "marching through the streets of Manchester for abortion rights," but worries that the feminists will do little more than "applaud and tell me how courageous I am. I expect more than that. They've got to get busy and do something for me. I hope I'm not disappointed."

Despite these liberal positions, Anderson is not in the wrong political party. In 1978, he voted with organized labor less than 40 percent of the time. He believes in the deregulation of natural gas and crude oil prices. He follows most of the standard Republican line on the economy, believing in the therapeutic value of a balanced budget, voting for the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill, and calling for new business tax incentives to encourage capital formation.

Less than an hour after his Maine speech, Anderson was back in his Holiday Inn room, watching the rain cascade down over a grimy section of Portland. He was upset, both with losing his voice for only the second time in his political career and with the inattention of his audience.

Gesturing angrily, he asked a series of rhetorical questions: "How do you get them to listen? Is this what our politics has come to? Is it wrong to think that they might remember something you said? That's the whole purpose of my campaign."

Later that afternoon, the results of the straw ballot were announced. The big news, which was a lead article in the following day's New York Times, was that George Bush had upset the Baker bandwagon. Buried in the story was the fact that John Anderson received exactly six votes—less than 0.5 percent of those cast.

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