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.
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.
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."
As a result, Galston boarded a train for Washington, D.C., and headed to Anderson's headquarters. "I knocked on the door and said I wanted to work for the campaign," he remembers. He joined Anderson's policy staff and eventually became speechwriter.
The campaign steadily attracted young intellectuals like Galston. Anderson had established a fiscally conservative economic plan and a liberal social agenda and proposed radical ideas -- even by today's standards -- that he refused to tone down, even under pressure. Twenty-four years before gasoline topped $2 per gallon and Social Security went on life support, Anderson proposed what he termed his "50-50 Plan." The idea: Raise gas taxes by 50 cents per gallon and reduce Social Security taxes by 50 percent. Newspaper columnists and cartoonists began to comment on the courage of his proposals. In less than a year, he'd gone from anonymous congressman to Republican contender.
"There was a feeling that this could happen," recalls Cliff Brown, the campaign's research director, who is now a political science professor at Union College in New York City. "Jimmy Carter was a national unknown [in 1976], and that was on everybody's mind. What Anderson could come to represent -- and did ultimately -- was a serious constituency within the Republican Party, namely the professional class."
Unlike Vermont's Dean this year, Anderson lacked the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks to provide him with overnight name recognition. That burdened the candidate well into the primary campaign season. By contrast, everyone knew his chief opponent, Reagan, from years of movies and television shows like Death Valley Days.
But Anderson was such a dark horse that he'd become the butt of a joke on Saturday Night Live. During "Weekend Update," Jane Curtin sat in front of a picture of the Illinois congressman. "The man shown above is said to be a Republican candidate for president of the United States," she said. "He is described as a white Caucasian male, 57 years old. If you have seen him, please call the following toll-free number."
That sparked an idea in Bisnow, by then de facto press secretary for the campaign: "I called up SNL and said, 'Is there any way of getting John Anderson to participate in a skit?'"
There was. But the show's producers and Anderson had to work around federal laws requiring equal time for candidates. The skit aired a week after the Iowa caucus, the first stage of the primary, in which Anderson finished sixth, far behind front-runners Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush. The skit showed the various candidates trying to win the vote of an Iowa farm family. Bush offered to fold laundry. John Connally, a former Texas governor, said he'd buy the daughter a pony. Reagan was asleep in the upstairs bed. And Anderson? No one had heard of any such candidate. Then the segment ended and the camera zoomed into the live audience, focusing on a tall, white-haired man with large eyeglasses. "Everybody realized, wow, that's the real John Anderson," Bisnow remembers fondly. Because he didn't speak, equal-time laws weren't violated.
The appearance provided the campaign with a much-needed bump in the polls. It also proved to be a tried-and-true political maneuver. In 2000, the audience reached by SNL was deemed so important that both Bush and Gore made guest appearances during their presidential campaigns. Neither presidential candidate has so far appeared this year -- though both have done the talk-show circuit. In Anderson's case, young people, particularly college students, began to support the campaign following the comedy skit. In the second primary vote, in New Hampshire, Anderson jumped to fourth. The campaign then moved to Massachusetts and Vermont, airing radio spots that played off the SNL appearance. They were simple, four-word clips:
"Before January, Anderson was only an asterisk in the polls," says Gerry Gras, a former Anderson staffer who is now active in the California Green Party. "Then people got so excited that they started coming out to support him."
Anderson still had raised less than $1 million, putting him at a disadvantage to his well-heeled opponents, who were both nearing $2 million in funding. (A joke compared to the more than $200 million George W. Bush raised in this year's primaries.) It ultimately hurt him. On March 4, he lost both states, finishing a close second to Reagan in Vermont and a razor-thin second to Bush in Massachusetts.
Yet dollar for dollar, Anderson was the winner. "We were getting $1.39 votes, Reagan was getting $30 votes, and Bush was getting $20 votes," remembers former campaign Communications Director Donald O. Graul Jr., who is now executive director of Washington Independent Writers, a scribe's union in D.C. "The problem was running on a very, very, very low-budget, high-volunteer campaign. You can only reach so far."
Anderson never regained his momentum in the primary. He lost the next vote in Illinois, finishing second to Reagan, and then lost again in Wisconsin, a liberal bastion he'd expected to win. The Republican voters made it clear: John B. Anderson wasn't their candidate.
Then the idea -- the big idea -- percolated through the campaign. Anderson had drawn support across party lines. Many of his volunteers were Democrats; many of his campaign contributions came from the left.
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."
For his part, Reagan took the Anderson debate seriously, if for no other reason than that he would receive airtime before a national audience. David Stockman, a conservative who left Anderson's campaign following the Republican primary, prepped Reagan in a series of mock debates in which Stockman pretended to be Anderson. Stockman, as it happens, later went on to be one of the intellectual founders of supply-side economics as Reagan's budget director.
On the evening of September 21, at the Baltimore Convention Center, Anderson and Reagan took the stage. The two candidates jousted over the 50-cent gas tax, military spending, inflation, unemployment among minorities, and the decaying of America's inner cities, among other issues. Anderson came off stiff and academic, always calling his opponent "governor" or "sir." Reagan handled himself in a cool, folksy manner, referring to Anderson by his first name and using short, easily digestible sentences. Both candidates constantly criticized what they viewed as weak leadership in the Carter administration.
At the end, Reagan delivered the line that would ultimately clinch his presidency: "We can meet our destiny -- and that destiny to build a land here that will be, for all mankind, a shining city on a hill." Indeed, his election would spark the conservative ideas that have dominated Republican leaders up to George W. Bush.
Anderson followed with a closing remark that would chart the next two decades of his life. He was about to become an advocate for election reform and independent candidates. "President Carter was not right a few weeks ago when he said that the American people were confronted with only two choices, with only two men, and with only two parties..." Anderson told the audience. "Consider... voting for an independent in 1980."
Then his poll numbers dipped. Anti-Reagan voters started to buy into the argument that Anderson was a spoiler. An October 1980 cartoon in the Los Angeles Times depicted a young woman writing a letter. "Dear Congressman Anderson," she wrote, "the thought of Ronald Reagan becoming president was just too much. I've decided to vote for President Carter. Please try to understand."
"The lesser of two evils made an impression on me," says Gras, who worked for Anderson in Massachusetts and Colorado. "People say that now about Nader. But they were saying it in 1980, telling people not to vote for Anderson."
By late October, Anderson fell below 15 percent in the polls. That disqualified him from the second presidential debate in Cleveland on October 28. Carter participated, and Anderson's campaign quickly spiraled downward. Most staffers could feel it. "But it's like playing baseball," McKenzie explains. "You can't stop playing."
Reagan won all but 49 electoral votes, earning 51 percent of the popular vote. Carter finished with 41.1 percent. Anderson garnered 6.6 percent. But just as Nader proved to be a spoiler for Al Gore in Florida in 2000 when he raked in 97,488 votes from the Sunshine State, Anderson cost Carter 11 states in 1980. Assuming every vote for Anderson would have otherwise gone to the president, Carter would have beaten Reagan in Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vermont. Though still losing in the Electoral College, Carter would have been shy of Reagan by about 2 million votes in the popular election, a much closer race than actually occurred.
Indeed, Anderson's performance was impressive. After raising $18.5 million without public funding, he won 5.7 million votes, garnering 15.2 percent of ballots cast in Massachusetts and 8.6 percent in Reagan's California. In Florida, Anderson won 189,692 votes, or 5.1 percent -- nearly four times the percentage Nader attracted in 2000.
To this day, Anderson believes he should have had a stronger showing at the polls. He blames his disappointing finish on his absence during the second debate. "It robbed me!" he says. "I ended up with just under 7 percent. I think I would have had as good a chance as Perot got in 1992 to get about 20 percent of the vote. That would have given us a leg up on getting the critical mass to start a third party, a legitimate new political party. Seven percent wasn't enough to cut it. It wasn't enough to show a revolution was taking place on the American political scene."
Most of Anderson's supporters moved away from the Republican Party following the 1980 presidential election. Many went on to support Gary Hart's and Paul E. Tsongas' unsuccessful presidential bids, which tried to attract the center with liberal social and conservative economic policies. The Democratic Leadership Council, which championed policies similar to Anderson's, formed in 1985 and its most astute graduate, Bill Clinton, ultimately won on a platform of compassionate centrism in 1992. "In some ways," McKenzie says, "John Anderson was a precursor to Bill Clinton."
"I keep bumping into people who were Anderson supporters," former campaign research director Brown muses. "It was a major moment in American politics. The 7 percent of the voters disguises a much larger percentage of people who would have voted for Anderson had he had any realistic chance of winning.
"He came out with his head up high. He wasn't embarrassed. I don't think you can say that about Ralph Nader. He's embarrassed."
Twenty-four years have passed since Anderson made his run for the White House. These days, he's surrounded by more aspiring lawyers than political aides. Dan Dickenson, a third-year law student with a coif of brown hair and politics in line with conservatives of a generation ago, is one.
Driving his black Volvo sedan down Dixie Highway at 8 p.m. September 30, Dickenson fights traffic as horns blare and uniformed police officers stand on roadsides to contain the crowds. In the passenger seat, Anderson looks attentively at the demonstrators across from the University of Miami. It was nothing like this in 1980. "We didn't have any protesters that I can recall," Anderson says.
In the past two decades, Anderson's political views have shifted steadily to the left. "I make no secret of that," he says. In 2000, he voted for Nader. He'd probably support the perennial candidate again this year were it not for the 2000 election debacle and Nader's "tendencies toward the egomaniacal." Four years ago, Anderson offered Nader advice on gaining ballot access nationwide.
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This year, however, his advice for the former Green Party candidate was quite different. Anderson wrote a letter asking him not to run. Apparently his role as a father to modern third-party candidates wasn't enough to sway Nader, who never replied. "I thought that it was too close to 2000, which had come out disastrously," Anderson says. "Much as I admire many of the positions [Nader] takes, I just thought it was a bad time to run."
If this year's race between Bush and Kerry is as close as polls indicate, Nader could once again serve as the spoiler. That would be disastrous for independent political movements, Anderson speculates. And that's partly why the former presidential candidate will give his vote to Kerry on Tuesday. "I think this is the most important election of my lifetime," Anderson says. "I'm not sure I've ever felt this strongly. I am unequivocally opposed to the Bush doctrine of preemptive war. I don't think there's ever been an administration in this country... that puts itself above the good of the American people. George W. Bush is the leader of the wealthy and well-bred. He represents the elite and the few."
The Illinoisan goes on to describe the 43rd president as "wholly unfit to lead" and "a man of very little intellectual capacity and depth." Just then, the northbound lanes of Dixie Highway come to a standstill. The southbound side empties of traffic. The flashing police lights appear first. Cruiser after cruiser and motorcycle after motorcycle pass at 45 miles per hour. Then comes a motorcade of black SUVs and limousines with darkly tinted windows. A limo passes in the center bearing the presidential seal.
Anderson watches respectfully as the president passes. He sits silent, his hands on his knees, as stoic and patient as he was 24 years ago.