Third Man

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

Remembers Bisnow: "We had the three top pollsters at that time come to us privately and say, 'We've never seen anything like this. We think you have a real, if outside, chance of being elected as an independent. '"

The media kept asking: Would he run without party backing? In early April, Anderson stayed with his family for a few days in a Los Angeles beach house. While there, he decided to become "a plague on both houses" of American politics. "I was, without unduly trying to dramatize the role that I played, the 'Happy Warrior,'" Anderson says, alluding to the 1928 presidential candidacy of Democrat Al Smith, who was trounced on Election Day by Republican Herbert Hoover. "I was rather joyful of the prospects of tweaking both major parties for their inability to solve the kinds of problems we were facing in the '80s."


In early April 1980, representatives from Time and Newsweek told the campaign that the congressman would appear on the cover of the magazines. It seemed he'd hit the populist jackpot.

The Carter campaign believed that Anderson's appearance on the ballot was likely to draw votes away from the sitting Democratic president. And that's where the greatest conspiracy theory of the Anderson campaign begins.

The United States was at the time dealing with a hostage crisis in Iran. Fifty-two Americans had been taken captive on November 4, 1979, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Carter administration had devised a plan to send a 132-man rescue team, called "Charlie's Angels," into the Iranian capital. Carter sat on the idea for two weeks.

On April 24, 1980, Anderson announced that he would run for president as an independent candidate. Almost immediately, his support jumped to 25 percent, while Carter's and Reagan's were in the 30s. "One certainly had the sense that he was within striking distance," Brown recalls.

But that very day, Carter green-lighted the mission. Then a series of missteps plagued the hostage rescue. Delta Force, an elite paramilitary squad, never arrived in Iran. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned in disgust.

The media went berserk. Time and Newsweek scrapped the Anderson covers. Newspapers buried the announcement of his independent candidacy behind stories about the crisis in Iran. "You had to wonder about the timing of the hostage rescue," Brown says.

Former campaign staffers to this day speculate that Anderson would have spiked higher in the polls had he received full media attention. It's possible that he might have rivaled Reagan, the front-runner.

What's more, the GOP immediately shunned him. "The only Republican congressman who was willing to be photographed with me was Jim Jeffords," Anderson says today. "Many years later, he left the Republican Party and became an independent. Ol' Jim was the only one. The others were conveniently at the other end of the District every time I showed up."

Even so, lacking the Republican Party's support, Anderson established himself as a viable candidate by September. The campaign fought legal battles in a host of states, spending more than $2 million on attorneys' fees to fight ballot-access laws. The legal precedents set by Anderson back then would later help H. Ross Perot and Nader in their pursuits of the White House. Anderson's campaign persuaded federal judges to agree that some election rules -- including the need for thousands of signatures to make the ballot and the requirement that presidential candidates file six months or more in advance -- placed unfair burdens on independents. One of those cases, Anderson vs. Celebrezze, finally went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 on April 19, 1983, to order Ohio to move its candidate filing deadline from March to August, allowing independents enough time. That case became the defining precedent for filing deadlines.

"Some of the lawyers involved with the state-by-state requirements wrote the book on independent candidacies," former communications director Graul says. "It's real tough, as Mr. Nader has discovered." (Nader will appear on the ballot in about 35 states this year. Unlike Nader, Anderson got on all 50 ballots.)

Around Labor Day 1980, Anderson selected as his running mate Patrick Lucey, the onetime Democratic governor of Wisconsin who had served as ambassador to Mexico under Carter before resigning in protest of the president's policies.

Anderson's polling numbers, which remained around 20 to 25 percent in September, earned him a spot on the nationally televised presidential debate, which was then organized by the League of Women Voters. As a result, Carter refused to participate in the September 21, 1980, debate in Baltimore.

At first, the League said it would recognize Carter's failure to attend by placing an empty chair on the stage. After that caused a flurry of jokes in the media, the League scrapped the idea.

"I've given [Carter] heck ever since," Anderson says. "He may have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he certainly didn't win any badge or award for political courage. He used the lame excuse that he was debating two Republicans when I had clearly left the Republican Party and was running as an independent with positions 180 degrees removed from Ronald Reagan. I give him unshirted heck every time I get a chance."

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