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?

Anderson's frustrations on the campaign trail are mirrored by his recent career in the House of Representatives as a pariah in his own party. Several of his colleagues describe him as "burnt out" after eighteen years in the minority. Anderson himself admits "I think I had contributed everything I could in the House. There really wasn't much left I could do given the growing conservative complexion of Republicans in the House." Morris Udall, who has worked closely with Anderson on campaign reform and environmental issues, put it this way: "I can't see John with his idealism, sticking around here and growing old, year after year, a minority within a minority."

For years conservatives have complained that the candidates they elect grow more and more liberal as they are exposed to the sinister influences of Washington. Anderson's career in the House supports this theory.

The son of an immigrant Swedish grocer, Anderson was an orthodox Republican when he was elected to the House in 1960, from a safe Republican district in northwestern Illinois. He was a thirty-eight-year-old lawyer with an LL.M. degree from Harvard who had been in the Foreign Service in Berlin in the early 1950s and who was at the time of his election, a local district attorney.

Throughout the 1960s, he prospered in the House, winning tangible rewards for his fidelity to Republican principles. In 1964, he was given a coveted seat on the Rules Committee. In 1969, his colleagues elected him chairman of the Republican Conference, the number-three leadership job in the House.

The event that triggered Anderson's current state of apostasy was his decision to switch his vote on the Rules Committee and prevent the gutting of the 1968 civil rights bill outlawing housing discrimination. The vote came in the time of turmoil that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King and the ensuing rioting.

Anderson recalls his "anguish" as he was torn between a belief "in the sacrosanct right of private property" and his late-blooming concern over "the invidious discrimination that was occurring in the sale and leasing of housing." There was, however, nothing halfhearted in the way he decided to cast with the civil rights movement. "I legislate today not out of fear, but out of deep concern for the America I love," he said in a speech on the House floor, which is credited with changing some Republican votes.

Anderson's horror over the Nixon Administration's bombing of Cambodia was the catalyst for a similar change in his foreign policy views. "I still recall it very vividly," he said. "I remember as a member of the leadership being told about it. That was a kind of watershed in my thinking, too. I look back on the whole Vietnam era with no particular satisfaction. I wish I had been prescient."

These events, and many other dramatic episodes, widened the cleavage between Anderson and his Republican colleagues. One veteran midwestern conservative, with a good deal of personal affection for Anderson, explained the bitterness of the younger conservatives. "If John has one weakness, he said, "it's that he tends tends to have a thin skin. When some of the conservatives have criticized him, he shot back in kind. He's had some verbal clashes with them. As a result he's developed a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude toward conservatives."

Since 1973, Anderson has had to beat back three right-wing challenges to his House leadership position. He had a serious re-election fight until 1978, when he was challenged in the Republican primary by a fundamentalist minister, Donald Lyon, who described Anderson as a turncoat conservative who now "comes back talking like some god of the East." It was, in Anderson's words, a "blood campaign," revolving around such such emotional issues as abortion and prayer in the the schools. The Republican establishment—Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger among them—rallied to Anderson's defense and campaigned for him. Anderson won, but Lyon received 42 cent of the primary vote. The recognition that he no longer had a safe seat was a major factor in his decision to retire from the House and pass up a 1980 Senate race to make this bid for the Republican nomination.

Anderson's problem is that whether he is on the House floor or on the campaign trail, most of the kind words for his presidential ambitions come from Democrats. Udall, who calls Anderson "an exceptional person," said that he "encouraged him to get into the presidential race." In fact, Udall almost wrote a fund-raising letter for Anderson to New England environmentalists, but finally decided it was too much of an affront to traditional party politics. Paul Findley, an Illinois Republican who wears an Anderson button on the House floor, said, "it engenders a lot of favorable comments—especially from Democrats."

Keke, that's why John is running for President, she's a kook," was the assessment of one House Republican. There is a glimmer of truth here. Keke Anderson, the daughter of Greek immigrants, grew up in Boston. She married John twenty-seven years ago, when he was in the Foreign Service and she was working for the passport office in the State Department. They have five children who, as she puts it, "range in age from the sandbox to Sartre." She is not only her husband's most devoted supporter but also the kind of feisty, independent political wife who gives campaign managers apoplexy.

At a dinner stop in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, a local reporter asked her, "Mrs. Anderson, what would you focus on if you were First Lady?" It is the inevitable question for a candidate's wife, and the answers are invariably innocuous—help retarded children, the arts, and so forth. Keke Anderson began, "I would work to turn our nation's psychology away from building more and more bombs. As a mother of five ... " and she went on from there, sounding more like an organizer for the Women's Strike for Peace than the loyal wife of a Republican presidential candidate.

Anderson chimes in, his voice thick with irony, "Careful, Keke, you're sounding like a peacenik. You know America has to arm to the teeth."

The reporter, who had recently interviewed a more traditional political wife, said, "Mrs. Bush doesn't contradict her husband."

"No dull marriage this," responded Mrs. Anderson.

Anderson took a puff on his Tiparillo and said, "It's about time the Republicans had a peace candidate. They had Gene McCarthy. I'm so sick of the people in my party who think in military terms."

The conversation then shifted to political wives in general, and someone volunteered that most of them are spontaneous as Barbie dolls. Anderson took another puff and said, "Well, I'm no Ken."

Despite his sense of humor, there is a stiff, almost priggish, side to Anderson's personality. He acknowledges it, even half apologizes for it. Listen to him explain why he is running. "As self-serving as it sounds, I guess a little bit pretentious, maybe pompous, you feel that you have learned something after twenty years' participation in national affairs."

Some of this self-righteousness may be attributable to his very strict religious upbringing. Anderson, who has a picture of Jesus Christ on the wall his congressional office, belongs to the Evangelical Free Church, a small Protestant denomination started by Scandinavian immigrants in the 1880's, which he describes as "very conservative theology, fundamentalist and all the rest." His religious beliefs are "very important," he said. "Your beliefs in later life have got to be influenced and shaped by the experiences you had as a child."

Anderson, however, bristles at any comparison between his religious orientation and that of Jimmy Carter. I would not [have tried] to convert Park Chung Hee, a Buddhist, to Christianity while riding in a taxicab with him," he said. "I never went on any preaching missions for my church."

In religion, as in politics, Anderson is a loner. He seems to delight in urging fundamentalists to take a more liberal stance on social issues. In 1970, he examined the roots of social conservatism among fundamentalists in a scholarly essay which was his contribution to a collection he edited, Congress and Conscience. In an address to the US Association of Evangelicals 1976, Anderson said, "As evangelicals you are concerned about abortion, amnesty and drug abuse as things that are really tearing down the moral fiber of our society, as they are. But too often you forget you must also be interested in other issues that have moral implications—like the more equal treatment of people in our society, and the problems of unemployment, poverty, and hunger."

Anderson acknowledges he has won few converts among Protestant fundamentalists. As he told one of his local coordinators in New Hampshire, "I do very well with Unitarians, much better than with my own fundamentalist church."

Anderson's campaign strategy has a thread of inner logic. It focuses on four early primaries New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Anderson's professed goal is to finish in the top three in both New England primaries, then go on to make a strong second-place showing against Reagan in Illinois and do well in Wisconsin. His campaign manager, Dan Swillinger, a veteran of the liberal Republican Ripon Society, talks bravely about going into the convention with a bloc of 400 or 500 delegates.

Traditionally, about 20 percent of the 110,000 Republicans who vote in the New Hampshire primary support liberal candidates. If Anderson could capture half of them—a paltry 11,000 votes—the press, for whom he is a sentimental favorite, could give him enough free publicity to carry him on to the later primaries.

His problem is that Baker and Bush, particularly Bush, have corralled most of the moderate wing of the Republican party. There are strong differences between Anderson and Bush/Baker on such issues as SALT, defense spending, and energy, but Anderson has not been successful at exploiting them. Instead, he has grown waspish in his assessment of those Republicans who offer his candidacy kind words but no visible support, among them moderate Republican governors: "I think their nerve has failed. I frankly have become contemptuous of the so-called moderates."

He is also short of campaign cash. As of the end of November, he had raised only $400,000, about half of which came from Illinois. It is fitting that Anderson, one of the architects of the law providing federal funding of presidential campaigns, is banking on qualifying for matching money by January. If he succeeds, it could mean an additional $400,000 to pay for a respectable media campaign in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Anderson, however, is hedging some bets. He refuses to go into debt to pay for his foray into presidential politics.

As he explains, "I have borrowed money to stay in Congress. I am not going to add to those debts. I put a very high priority on the education of my children. I have two in college and two more to go. I've never been rich, I don't expect to be rich, I don't want to be rich, but I certainly don't want to end up in the poorhouse either."

As the New Hampshire primary nears, John Anderson continues his lonely campaign, preaching to small audiences about the need for a stiff gasoline tax and an end to "missile madness." These are serious issues, more substantive than those raised thus far by other candidates, but they lack the emotional intensity to sustain a noble lost cause. Playing political Don Quixote is for single-issue zealots, not for responsible moderates such as Anderson, even when they are bursting with intelligent ideas.

Ultimately, what is most enigmatic about Anderson is why he is putting himself through this ordeal. There are some reasons—his isolation within Congress, the urgings of his wife, the gamble that he can transmit to the the voters those qualities that Washington finds so admirable—but taken together they do not add up to a convincing rationale. Perhaps the best explanation is also the simplest. John Anderson is running for President, and is willing risk looking foolish in the process cause he is convinced, with some justice that he can do a better job than anyone else in the race.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In