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?

Ira Schwarz / AP

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.

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.