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It's someone from Colorado. Some organization wants him to make a speech about election reform. Two hours earlier, an Internet radio show producer asked him to participate in a panel. Anderson receives calls like these regularly. He's something of an expert. In 1995, he became chairman of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization that employs celebrities, including former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, to encourage election reform on state and national levels. The organization advocates reapportionment of congressional districts, instant runoff voting, and abolition of the Electoral College.
Anderson is the perfect face for the organization, since his life story centers on the electoral process. It starts in Winnebago County, Illinois, a rural, corn-producing area nestled on the Wisconsin border. The son of Swedish immigrants, Anderson grew up in the county's main city, Rockford. At age 18, he enrolled in the University of Illinois before enlisting in the Army to help fend off Hitler's advances in Europe. After the war, Anderson earned law degrees from Illinois and Harvard, and in 1952, he entered the Foreign Service, earning $5,093 per year as an officer in the Eastern Affairs Division. He met his wife, Keke, while training in Washington, D.C., and the couple soon moved to West Berlin, where their first child, Elenora, was born.
By 1955, Anderson decided to leave the Foreign Service and return to Rockford. The next year, he won the race for local district attorney. Meanwhile, his family was growing. Over the next decade, Keke gave birth to four more children: John B. Jr., Diane, Karen, and Susan.
When Winnebago County's congressional seat opened in 1960, Anderson jumped at the opportunity to serve in the capital, entering a field of five Republicans. The candidate successfully lured both urban and rural votes, beating his rivals in the primary and then besting nominal competition from a Democratic plumber in the general election. "I was a city boy," Anderson says. "I didn't know anything about farming. But I learned in a hurry."
Over the next 20 years in the Capitol, Anderson made a name for himself as a hard-working, studious lawmaker. In 1969, he was elected chairman of the Republican Conference, the third-highest GOP leadership position, behind party leader and whip, in the House of Representatives. Anderson forged a reputation as a Republican with a keen interest in social and environmental issues. He supported legislation that provided greater protection for minorities against housing discrimination and, with Democrat Morris Udall, co-sponsored a measure that set aside 129 million acres of land for national parks and wildlife refuges in Alaska.
Despite his leadership role, Anderson refused to blindly support his party and became a paragon of political courage. In 1973, after it became clear that Richard Nixon had been involved in the Watergate scandal, Anderson was the only Republican congressman to call for the president's resignation. He did so at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Chicago a few nights after the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973, when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and others resigned in disgust. "I was so appalled... that he was engaged and complicit in a cover-up," Anderson says. "That was why I felt that the time had come for him to remove himself from office."
"[Anderson] had a reputation for taking principled stands that often went against the grain of the Republican Party," remembers Mark Bisnow, who wrote a book, Diary of a Dark Horse, about his experiences on the Anderson campaign.
In 1978, Bisnow was working as an aide to Republican Pennsylvania Sen. H. John Heinz, Teresa Heinz Kerry's extraordinarily wealthy late husband. After meeting Anderson on trips to Africa and Indonesia, Bisnow was struck by the congressman's tireless work ethic and insatiable curiosity. He summed up Anderson in his book: "He was reminiscent of the college professor who has not taken the trouble to publish very regularly, but who everyone knows anyway to be the best teacher of the lot."
That same year, the Rockford native faced his stiffest political competition when national conservative groups donated more than $240,000 to his opponent, Republican Don Lyon, a right-wing preacher. It failed. But the well-funded effort ultimately signaled to Anderson a growing movement within the GOP. He wasn't anything like the young religious conservatives who were joining his party, a group that has largely taken control of the party platform. "I was of the wrong hue, the wrong stripe," Anderson says.
That's when the congressman began to ponder a promotion. In 1978, Washington Post columnist George F. Will speculated that Anderson would run for president in 1980. What Will couldn't have known then is that the Illinoisan wouldn't follow the party line.
He was to be the 1980 equivalent of former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean, suggests William McKenzie, Anderson's former deputy research director, who is now an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News. "Howard Dean was willing to challenge the war and shake up the party," he says. "That was very Anderson-like."
On June 8, 1979, flanked by microphones at the Capitol and wearing a black suit and large round eyeglasses, Anderson officially announced that he would seek the Republican nomination for president.
About six months later, Bill Galston made tenure as a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin and began a yearlong sabbatical. "My options were to do nothing, twiddling my thumbs and wringing my hands, or strike out in a direction," Galston remembers. "I was in something approaching despair about the course of politics in the country. I knew I could never be for Reagan, and Carter made a lot of promises that he had not fulfilled."