Thursday, February 15, 2007

Candidate, Under a Eucalyptus Tree

John B. Anderson was born on this day in 1922 in Rockford, Illinois.

A 20-year Republican congressman with a record of bucking the conservative wing of the Republican party by supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, relative unknown John Anderson decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 in an effort to help steer the party away from right-wing candidates such as Ronald Reagan.

With thick white hair, thick plastic-rimmed glasses and a foghorn voice which sometimes betrayed a cranky impatience, Anderson was anything but telegenic, but he captured the attention of the press with his non-partisan candor in the Iowa debate; he was the only candidate who refused to pander to farm interests when he voiced his support for Democratic President Carter's grain embargo against the Soviet Union in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although he placed a poor fifth in Iowa, his national profile was on the rise when cartoonist Garry Trudeau began to feature the Anderson campaign in his Doonesbury comic strip.

After Iowa winner George (H.W.) Bush lost to Reagan in the New Hampshire primary, some polls began to identify Anderson as the strongest moderate alternative to Bush, and Anderson placed a close second in the Massachusetts and Vermont primaries. After he lost to Reagan in his home state of Illinois, however, Anderson decided to take a breather (in his words) "to sit under a eucalyptus tree in California" (a reference, no doubt, to Siddartha's epiphanous rest under a pipal tree), and in April 1980 he emerged as an independent candidate for president.

With a combination of socially liberal positions (favoring abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and gay rights) and economic pragmatism (poking holes in Reagan's supply-side economic program and supporting a 50 cent hike in the gas tax), Anderson built on support from moderates and independents, including many college students, and drew polling numbers of 20% to 30% during April and May, causing speculation that the presidential election might result in an Electoral College draw. He suffered, however, from lack of funds and from being excluded from the September debate between Carter and Reagan -- although CNN, then just a fledgling network, did feature Anderson that evening responding to the same questions from another stage.

The Carter campaign was particularly hard on Anderson, as they believed that Anderson would take more votes from Carter than from Reagan in the general election, and the campaign repeatedly called upon Anderson to bow out of the election and avoid being a spoiler. Anderson, however, who believed Carter's fate was sealed following the botched Iranian hostage rescue attempt, responded by asking, "What's to spoil?" Anderson ended his campaign by borrowing funds from supporters (probably a securities violation) on the promise that he would pay them back with federal matching funds, which he would receive only if he achieved 5% of the general election vote. He kept his promise, getting 6.6% of the vote to Reagan's 50.7% and Carter's 41%.

After the 1980 election, Anderson largely retired from politics, teaching law and working on public interest projects, including the Center for Voting and Democracy. He supported Democrat Walter Mondale during the 1984 election, and briefly considered running for the 2000 Reform Party nomination.

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