Third Man

Fort Lauderdale's John B. Anderson ran for president in 1980 and paved the way for spoiler candidates

It's nearing 5 p.m. on Thursday, September 30. Drumbeats can be heard for miles down South Dixie Highway near the University of Miami as demonstrators and campaign workers stump for their presidential candidate. In a few hours, George W. Bush and John Kerry will clash nearby in their first debate.

Amid the demonstrations, Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, a 41-year-old lawyer from Houston with a bald pate, large round glasses, and the oratory of a Baptist preacher, walks toward the entrance to the Holiday Inn.

Just then, a black Volvo sedan pulls up. The passenger-side door swings open. A tall man with a thick head of cotton-white hair exits. He's dressed in a crisp chino suit, his posture as straight and sturdy as a two-by-four planted in dried concrete.

Anderson refused to blindly support his party and became a paragon of political courage.
Colby Katz
Anderson refused to blindly support his party and became a paragon of political courage.
Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb spoke at the presidential counterdebates in Coral Gables on September 30.
Colby Katz
Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb spoke at the presidential counterdebates in Coral Gables on September 30.

Cobb stops. His eyes widen as he extends his right arm anxiously. "Mr. John Anderson," he says, "this is an honor, an honor indeed! I'm David Cobb, the Green Party candidate for president."

"I guess I've found the right place," Anderson replies, straightening his suit.

Roughly 100 people have come to hear Cobb debate Libertarian Party presidential hopeful Michael Badnarik in a protest of the closed-door policy of tonight's main event.

To many who will cast ballots next Tuesday for such third-party candidates as Cobb, Badnarik, and Ralph Nader, 82-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident John B. Anderson is a hero. A former ten-term Republican congressman from Illinois known for his liberal heart and conservative economics, Anderson ran for president in 1980, challenging Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan in what became one of the most successful and influential independent candidacies in modern American history. He placed high in the polls, performed on Saturday Night Live, made the cover of the Economist, debated Reagan before 55 million television viewers, and energized a disenfranchised youth vote.

Heads turn when the lanky former politician walks into the hotel ballroom. "Mr. Anderson, you were the first presidential candidate I ever voted for," one man says, nudging his way forward.

Anderson smiles. "I guess it's not too late to thank you for your vote," he says, heading toward a lectern in the front of the room.

The elder statesman takes position, opening the right lapel of his suit jacket to expose a pin that reads: "The citizens of Baltimore welcome the 1980 presidential debate."

"Believe it or not, my youthful appearance belies the fact that it is I who was there and participated in one debate in the 1980 presidential campaign," Anderson begins. Some cheer; others laugh. He goes on to describe the inequity of the American political process, the unwillingness of the two-party system to hear independent voices, and the brainwashing of voters into believing that their only choice is between two evils. Then, in classic form, Anderson follows with a quote from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself.

In some ways, not much has changed in 24 years. Anderson learned the hard way that many workaday citizens don't care for a smarty-pants. Al Gore discovered the same thing four years ago, when most of the heartland turned red for Bush. Kerry, whose rhythmic speaking style is reminiscent of an unbalanced ceiling fan, might ascertain the same on Tuesday.

But the reason third-party voters admire Anderson is simple. He is the man to thank, in part, for Nader's spoiler effect in the 2000 election and the consumer crusader's appearance again on this year's presidential ballot. Anderson in 1980 won legal victories in state capitals and in the U.S. Supreme Court that provided easier ballot access for independent presidential candidates. Says Bill Galston, a former Clinton White House aide who worked on the Anderson campaign: "He was the harbinger of a new force and a new voice in American politics."


Palm trees line the entrance to the Shepard Broad Law Center at Nova Southeastern University in Davie. On the first floor, young law students, laptop computers at hand, gather around tables in study groups. Follow the stairs to the second floor and you'll arrive at the labyrinthine rows of nondescript faculty offices. John Anderson's happens to be located in the middle of an area referred to as "The West Wing."

Anderson sits at his desk, staring attentively at a computer monitor displaying his AOL e-mail and Buddy List. His hair stands out as if it were atop a proud cotton plant. Law volumes and legal reviews clutter a coffee table and couch. The bookshelf is arranged in the type of organized chaos only a voracious reader could devise. In front of Anderson's desk sits an oak chair polished to a spit shine. A plaque on the back reads: "Distinguished Visiting Chair in Public Affairs Law."

Since the early '80s, Anderson has taught classes in electoral process and constitutional law. He moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1983 to avoid Washington, D.C.,'s cold winters, having first become attracted to Broward's sandy coastline while campaigning in the area in 1980. At first, he stayed only a few months each year. Gradually, he became a full-time resident. These days, Anderson lives in the same condominium on the beach he bought 21 years ago for $54,500.

His phone rings. "This is John Anderson," he says in his slow, deliberate voice.

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