Paying tribute to many virtues of John B. Anderson
John B. Anderson changed my life. Or rather, I changed my life because of John B. Anderson.
The retired congressman and former presidential candidate died on Sunday at the age of 95. I was living and working in Boston in the late 1970s. I made a New Year’s Eve resolution to volunteer for a presidential campaign in 1980. That night I found a dollar bill, a good omen for the year of change ahead.
I chose Congressman John B. Anderson, a Republican from Rockford, Ill., running for the Republican presidential nomination against Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush among others.
For me it wasn’t the party, it was the issues. And standing on issues turned out to be part of who John Anderson was. His “campaign of ideas” merged candor and common sense. He wasn’t afraid to take unpopular positions such as a gas tax to save energy at home or licensing of guns. He was a fiscal conservative and social moderate who supported abortion rights, the equal rights amendment and food stamps.
I loved the political work, in the thick of it at state headquarters on nights and weekends. Within two months, Anderson rumbled with gun owners in New Hampshire and placed in the Vermont and Massachusetts primaries. The state staff became the national staff, and I was recruited to join the national campaign. I was 27, single, money in the bank, and now hooked on politics. I quit my job and chose adventure.
I went on the road to several eastern seaboard states helping the campaign coordinators. But as Reagan’s prospects grew, Anderson’s did too — as an alternative for moderate Republicans and for Democrats dissatisfied with President Jimmy Carter’s lackluster leadership.
In the late spring Anderson went to California to “sit under a eucalyptus tree” and decide his next move. He transformed into an independent third party candidate for the National Unity Party. The campaign switched gears from Republican primaries to a 50-state effort to get Anderson on the ballot. States had different deadlines and complicated rules. Many required petitions signed by registered voters to get on the ballot.
I asked the campaign to send me out west. I had no idea what a eucalyptus tree was and had never seen real mountains. They sent me to Reno to help local volunteers get Anderson on the ballot.
Quickly I learned to say Ne-vadd-uh. Nevadans were attracted to his common sense ideas and valued his position against the MX nuclear missile project. After a road trip to eastern Nevada, I understood what was at risk for Nevada if MX happened. I came to Carson City weekly to collect notarized petitions. It was the best part of my week. Nevada began to feel like home.
We collected enough signatures to get Anderson on the Nevada ballot. But nationally Anderson’s popularity had peaked in June 1980. In November, Ronald Reagan defeated President Carter and John Anderson who received 7 percent of the vote nationally.
Why did Anderson have such a following? For young people like me, disillusioned by Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, Anderson inspired us to work for change to make things better. His views evolved over time, from Barry Goldwater conservative to fair housing champion. He told the truth. He made sense. He kept an open mind. And as his thinking matured, he believed in a moderate approach rather than supporting extreme positions. The “Anderson difference” resonated with moderates and liberals. Today that might be called boring, or perhaps it sounds like a great relief after the barrage of hyperbole that’s part of politics today.
In the wake of the Senate’s recent vote on tax “reform,” consider this Anderson quote. “The only way you can do that — balance the budget, decrease taxes, and increase military spending — is with mirrors, and that’s what it would take.”
John Anderson was a catalyst in Congress, in national politics, and for those of us inspired by his idealism. Thank you, Congressman Anderson.
Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.