John B. Anderson, who represented my northern Illinois district in Congress when I was growing up, passed away earlier this month at the imposing age of 95.
Although he was a fixture back home, the rest of the nation didn't know much about him until the end of his career, when he made the crucial decision that ended it--to run as a third-party candidate for president in 1980.
With his straight jaw, thick shock of white hair and outsized black hornrims, Anderson always struck me as a dead ringer for Andy Warhol; albeit a Warhol that didn't look permanently disheveled and wasted.
Anderson was the quintessential member of a now largely extinct species--the liberal Republican, generally found back then in northern environs and defined as the only kind of Republican that the media liked, at least for a while, at least while they were sticking it to their own party.
Ronald Reagan, the man who won that 1980 election, was an ardent New Dealer in his early years. He always claimed that he hadn't left the Democratic Party, but that the Democrats in their leftward lurch had instead left him.
When it came to liberal Republicans like Anderson, Jacob Javits, and especially Nelson Rockefeller, the claim was that they were the ones who had stayed true to true Republicanism while Barry Goldwater and Reagan swung their party radically rightward.
Anderson himself frequently complained about "extremist fringe elements" taking over the GOP, presumably referring to the likes of Reagan.
Thus, our congressman caught fire during the primaries, at least with the media, because he mischievously strayed in pre-McCain "maverick" fashion from GOP orthodoxy. He became an early recipient of the "Strange New Respect Award," periodically given by the Washington media to conservatives who supposedly come to their senses and drift leftward.
Reporters and editors also embraced Anderson because they knew he didn't have a snowball's chance of winning. They thought he was too good, too obviously intelligent and had too much integrity for the knuckle-dragging Republicans, and he apparently came to think so, too.
What I remember most distinctly about that primary season was that Reagan was already considered by many as something of a has-been, his moment having allegedly passed four years earlier when he failed to wrest the nomination from an uninspiring Gerald Ford. Losing "the Big Mo" to George Bush in the Iowa caucuses only seemed to confirm that perception.
There simply weren't many premonitions back then that Reagan would become that Reagan, the man who, in Margaret Thatcher's only modest exaggeration, "won the Cold War without firing a shot."
Enough of us certainly were sure, however, that Jimmy Carter really was that Jimmy Carter, a vacillating, sermonizing, wimpy poster boy for the concept of the "failed presidency."
The first and most embarrassing vote I ever cast was for Carter, thereby making my evidentiary contribution on behalf of the argument that the 26th Amendment had been a mistake.
If the number of people who now claim to have been at Woodstock outnumbers by roughly 10 to one the number that were actually there, the number who voted for Carter (some twice!!) and will admit it is probably about one-tenth of the number who actually did.
But early on in 1980 lots of supposedly smart money was being bet on big-talking, Stetson-wearing former Texas governor and Democrat-turned-Republican John Connally, who would go on to set a record which probably still stands, at least in inflation-adjusted terms, for largest amount of money spent per delegate (he won only one, in South Carolina). All hat and no cattle indeed.
If memory serves, Reagan was actually my last choice, or close to it, in an impressive GOP field that year--I preferred not just Anderson over him but also Bush, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, and another Chicago-area congressman, Phil Crane. Just about any of the crew but the execrable Lowell Weicker.
Anderson eventually pulled out after losing our home-state primary decisively to Reagan, but the lure of the bright lights and all those valentines from the national media then enticed him into that suicidal third-party bid, where he won only 6.6 percent of the popular vote.
Anderson would say that he reluctantly ran as a matter of principle, but it is easier to believe that he didn't want to give up his newfound celebrity status earlier than he had to.
John B's 10 minutes of fame passed nonetheless, but a few years later some friends and I happened to run across him in our favorite watering hole on the University of Illinois campus, sitting alone at the bar with a beer. He said he'd been on campus to give a talk (he too, was an alumnus, undergraduate degree in political science and J.D. from the law school).
I didn't have the heart to tell him that his constituent had voted for Bush over him back in that Illinois primary, and then for Reagan over him in the general election.
But if I had, I suspect he would have thanked me just the same for participating in our glorious democratic process.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.
Editorial on 12/18/2017
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