John Anderson, 95; stepped into spotlight with independent bid for president

Mr. Anderson initially did well against the major party nominees in polls in 1980 but ended up with 6.6 percent of the popular vote.
Mr. Anderson initially did well against the major party nominees in polls in 1980 but ended up with 6.6 percent of the popular vote.(Ira Schwarz/Associated Press/file 1980)

NEW YORK — John B. Anderson, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who bolted his party to run as a plain-spoken independent candidate for president in 1980, drawing an enthusiastic if transient following among liberals and college students, died on Sunday night in Washington. He was 95.

His family announced his death in a statement, the Associated Press reported.

The United States was struggling with a recession, sky high interest rates, a severe energy crisis, and the protracted Iranian hostage crisis when Mr. Anderson gave up a safe seat in the House of Representatives to seek the Republican presidential nomination. When that try fizzled, he reintroduced himself as an independent, honest-dealing alternative to the rancorous business-as-usual politics of the major parties.


For a while he had the national spotlight, a 58-year-old maverick whose prematurely white hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and clear-headed presentation gave him the air of a genial professor who was not so much above the fray as he was unwilling to play by its rules.

Mr. Anderson refused to pander, telling voters in Iowa that he favored President Carter’s embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union after it had invaded Afghanistan. He called for a gasoline tax of 50 cents per gallon — when a gallon cost $1.15 — to save energy.

Early on, when all six of his rivals for the Republican nomination assured the Gun Owners of New Hampshire that they firmly opposed gun control legislation, Mr. Anderson said, “I don’t understand why.”

“When in this country we license people to drive automobiles,” he added, “what is so wrong about proposing that we license guns to make sure that felons and mental incompetents don’t get ahold of them?”

He was roundly booed.

His backers promoted his campaign style as “the Anderson difference,” but despite it — or perhaps because of it — he never finished better than second in a Republican primary. That came in Illinois, his home state, which he had expected to win. When he did not, losing to Ronald Reagan by fewer than 12 points (Reagan was born in Illinois), he decided to run as an independent.


Drawing support from moderate to liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats and finding a receptive audience on college campuses, Mr. Anderson did well in the polls at the start. At one point, upward of one-fifth of voters said they preferred him to the major party nominees, Reagan and Carter, the Democrat, who was seeking reelection.

Mr. Anderson peaked in June, when he was the choice of 24 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll. His hopes were sustained by the volatility of the 1980 campaign, with its sudden swings of popularity. Carter’s Democratic challenger, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, led by large margins in early polls, only to see the president recover and defeat him soundly in the primaries.

Reagan, the early Republican favorite, spent money lavishly, but lost to George Bush in the Iowa caucuses and trailed in national polls before a solid win in New Hampshire put him back on the road to the nomination. Mr. Anderson said he believed that the tide might turn in his favor in “the climactic phase of the campaign.”

So he pushed on, calling Carter a “mean and evasive” campaigner who used a recession and high unemployment to fight inflation and criticizing Reagan’s campaign “one-liners” as “slick and simplistic.”


But in a pattern familiar to independent candidates, Mr. Anderson’s support drifted as voters turned to candidates who they believed could actually win the White House. On Election Day, when Reagan won in a landslide, Mr. Anderson ended up with 6.6 percent of the popular vote.

James Gannon, the editor of the Des Moines Register, memorably encapsulated the congressman’s strengths and weaknesses. He once described Mr. Anderson as ‘‘a silver-haired orator with a golden tongue, a 17-jewel mind, and a brass backbone’’ but ‘‘whose Achilles heel is a passionate attachment to the issues and a willingness to argue his viewpoint when it would be shrewder to shut up.’’

Mr. Anderson was perceived as the most liberal of the three contenders. That label probably fit on social issues such as abortion, but his economic views were traditionally conservative. He preferred to think of himself as the moderate in the race — a self-description that reflected a marked political evolution.

In his first three years in the House, starting in 1961, Mr. Anderson, a former prosecutor and a decorated World War II veteran, received a zero rating from the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action. Not long after entering the Capitol, he proposed a constitutional amendment declaring that “this nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations.”

The measure never came to a vote, and he later apologized for it.

Mr. Anderson, who had voted against many of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society economic and social programs, gradually came to embrace them. As part of his incremental political evolution, he spoke of being deeply moved while attending funerals for civil rights activists. He began to travel more widely, seeing the effects of housing discrimination and racism.


And he was an effective orator in the days when speeches on the House floor could still change votes. His signature legislative achievement came in April 1968, days after riots sparked by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. tore through Washington. King’s death and unrest so close to the Capitol prompted Congress to take up the Fair Housing Act, which, as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, would prohibit racial discrimination in housing.

Under pressure from both parties, Mr. Anderson broke with his fellow Republicans on the House Rules Committee and cast the deciding eighth vote to send the bill to the House floor. During debate in the House, he gave a rousing speech that championed the bill and led to its passage.

‘‘We are not simply knuckling under to pressure or listening to the voices of unreasoning fear and hysteria if we seek to do that which we believe in our hearts is right and just,’’ he said on the House floor. ‘‘I legislate today not out of fear, but out of a deep concern for the America I love. We do stand at a crossroad. We can continue the Gadarene slide into an endless cycle of riot and disorder, or we can begin the slow and painful ascent toward that yet-distant goal of equality of opportunity for all Americans, regardless of race or color.’’


He was still conservative enough in 1969 for the Republicans to elect him chairman of the House Republican Conference, the third-ranking leadership position. He held the post through 1979, though not without fighting off challenges from the right. By then, the Americans for Democratic Action had put his voting record in the mid-40s, and he had harshly criticized President Nixon, a fellow Republican, over his handling of the Watergate scandal. His own critics called Mr. Anderson self-righteous and preachy.

He grew increasingly impatient not only with the House but also with the growing strength of the right wing of his own party.

“Extremist fringe elements,” he complained in 1977, “seek to expel the rest of us from the GOP.” He warned, “If the purists stage their ideological coup d’état, our party will be consigned to the historical junk heap.”

The right returned the compliment with a strong Republican primary campaign against him in his 1978 House race. With the help of Democratic crossover votes, Anderson won with 58 percent over the insurgent, Don Lyon, a conservative minister. But he resented the challenge, and his thoughts turned to the White House.

It was always a long-shot campaign. No elected official, not even his friends in the House, endorsed him. His Republican campaign, announced in June 1979, drew little support as Bush emerged as the only viable alternative to Reagan (who wound up choosing Bush as his running mate).

For his independent run, announced in April 1980, Anderson had to spend millions to get on the ballot in all 50 states as the National Unity Party candidate, leaving little cash for television advertising. (His running mate was Patrick J. Lucey, a former Democratic governor of Wisconsin.) And when Carter refused to join him in a September debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters — the president, it was said, did not want to be perceived as taking Anderson’s candidacy seriously — Anderson’s last and best chance of having an effect was snuffed out.

The debate went ahead without the president, but Reagan gained more from it than Anderson did. When Anderson’s poll standing slipped below 15 percent, the league did not invite him back for an October debate, the only one between Carter and Reagan, for whom it was a turning point.

But Anderson never considered dropping out.

“We had operated from the very beginning with the assumption that it was a given that Jimmy Carter could not be re-elected,” Anderson told a conference at the Institute of Politics at Harvard weeks after the election. His hope, he added, was that with the collapse of the Carter campaign, he could emerge “as a rational and reasonable alternative to Ronald Reagan.”

To the frequent accusation that he had been a spoiler in the race, he replied: “What’s to spoil? Spoil the chances of two men at least half the country doesn’t want?”

John Bayard Anderson was born on Feb. 15, 1922, in Rockford, Ill., a son of Swedish immigrants. As a boy he worked in the family’s grocery store.

He earned bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Illinois and a master of laws at Harvard. In World War II he earned four battle stars as a staff sergeant in the field artillery in Europe and later worked in the Foreign Service in Berlin and Washington, where he met Keke Machakos, a passport photographer. They married in 1953. Returning to Illinois, he was elected state’s attorney for Winnebago County in 1956.

He leaves his wife, a son, four daughters, and 11 grandchildren.

Material from the Washington Post was used in this obituary.