John Anderson, fiery third-party candidate in 1980 presidential race, dies at 95

In this July 2, 1980 file photo, Independent presidential candidate Rep. John Anderson of Illinois ponders a question from reporters during a press conference in Washington. The former Illinois congressman and presidential candidate has died. A family statement says the 95-year-old Rockford Republican died Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Anderson served ten terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. He later waged an independent campaign against Democratic President Jimmy Carter and GOP challenger Ronald Reagan. Anderson received 7 percent of the national vote. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)
In this July 2, 1980 file photo, Independent presidential candidate Rep. John Anderson of Illinois ponders a question from reporters during a press conference in Washington. The former Illinois congressman and presidential candidate has died. A family statement says the 95-year-old Rockford Republican died Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Anderson served ten terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. He later waged an independent campaign against Democratic President Jimmy Carter and GOP challenger Ronald Reagan. Anderson received 7 percent of the national vote. (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)

John B. Anderson, an Illinois Republican who cultivated a free-thinking reputation during his 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, and who mounted a serious third-party bid for the White House in 1980, died Dec. 3 in Washington. He was 95. 

His family announced the death in a statement. Additional details were not immediately available.

After entering Congress in 1961, Anderson spent many years in lock step with Republican Party orthodoxy and was a supporter of ultraconservative Sen. Barry Goldwater's presidential bid in 1964.

But Anderson, who had voted against many of President 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.

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, 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."

The vote heralded Anderson's arrival as a voice on national affairs. He remained a fiscal conservative but sided with liberals on social issues.

He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, freedom of choice on abortion and food-stamp programs. His reversal of support for the Vietnam War by the early 1970s and his early call for President Richard Nixon's resignation during the Watergate scandal placed him in sharp relief against a growing conservatism in the Republican Party.

He asked the president to "spare the nation one last agony" by resigning, which Nixon did a few months later, in August 1974.

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In 1978, conservative political action committees backed former fundamentalist minister Don Lyon to challenge Anderson for his House seat. Anderson secured reelection with 58 percent of the vote, but the experience pained and provoked him.

"I was almost destined to make the decision, which I did in 1980, that rather than continue to fight a local war with right-wing conservatives, I would bring my broader viewpoint on where the Republican Party should be positioning itself as we entered the decade of the '80s," Anderson told the Harvard Law Bulletin in 2002.

In a field including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Anderson campaigned in the Republican presidential primaries in 1980. His second-place finishes in the Massachusetts and Vermont primaries in March and his announcement of an independent bid in April drew media curiosity.

His "campaign of ideas," as he called it, crystallized the independent movement and fired up disenchanted voters who wanted a choice other than Reagan, a former California governor who won the GOP nomination, or President Jimmy Carter.

With his mound of thick, white hair and his dark-rimmed glasses, the scholarly Anderson was an unconventional rebel. His booming voice, knowledge of policy and commanding oratory appealed to disaffected liberals and college students.

Anderson's best-known campaign proposal was a national 50-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax that would be used to reduce employee Social Security taxes. The federal gas tax at the time was 4 cents, and Anderson's talk of sacrifice often irked voters who had struggled through the stagflation of the Carter years.

When Anderson persisted in telling a New Hampshire gun owners group why he supported gun control in 1980, the members booed him, and some shouted death threats.

James Gannon, the editor of the Des Moines Register, memorably encapsulated the congressman's strengths and weaknesses. He once described 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."

As an independent, Anderson faced an uphill battle to get on the ballot in all 50 states, to secure campaign funding and to capture continued media attention, especially during the major parties' national conventions. In the end, he and his running mate, Patrick J. Lucey, a Democrat and former governor of Wisconsin, finished third, with 7 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes. Reagan won the election.

"I had no great sense of failure," Anderson told political scholar Jim Mason for his 2011 book about Anderson's White House bid, "No Holding Back." "I didn't come out of the campaign with the sense that I'd thrown my career away or thrown my life away on what was a fruitless, feckless endeavor. I felt that I had made my mark on the pages of history and laid down some markers for others possibly to follow."

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John Bayard Anderson was born in Rockford, Illinois, on Feb. 15, 1922. As a child, he worked in the grocery store of his father, a Swedish immigrant. He also attended services several times a week at an evangelical church, as well as tent meetings with traveling preachers, he wrote in his 1970 memoir, "Between Two Worlds."

The valedictorian of his high school class, Anderson was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the debate team at the University of Illinois, where he graduated in 1942.

After Army service in Europe during World War II, he completed a law degree at Illinois in 1946, earned a master of laws degree from Harvard in 1949 and practiced law in his home town.

In 1952, as he was about to leave for an assignment with the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany in West Berlin, his 19-year-old passport photographer, Keke Machakos, joked to coax him to smile. They traded telegrams across the Atlantic and were married in West Berlin in 1953. They returned to Rockford two years later.

Besides his wife, survivors include five children and 11 grandchildren.

In 1956, Anderson was elected state's attorney of Winnebago County. Four years later, he won the seat of retiring congressman Leo Allen.

He spoke of the sweeping social transformations of the 1960s as a pivotal era of his own growth. He attributed his changing outlook to his religious faith, once explaining, "The Great Commandments simply mean that given an interdependent society, we are all accountable for what's around us."

Anderson became an advocate for the role of government to aid the disenfranchised. He supported the Department of Education and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which protected more than 100 million acres in that state. He opposed the development of the B-1 bomber and the MX missile, further construction of nuclear power plants, and discrimination on the basis of handicap or sexual orientation.

He became chairman of the House Republican Conference, the third-ranking party member, but his increasing distance from GOP positions began to cost him support from colleagues.

"I detest John's views," then-Rep. Robert Bauman, a Maryland Republican, told The New York Times in February 1980, "but what I detest even more is his effectiveness at espousing them."

After his career in elective office, Anderson taught constitutional law for many years at Nova Southeastern University near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he had a home.

In the early 2000s, Anderson was president and chief executive of the World Federalist Association, now known as Citizens for Global Solutions, a group formed to promote strengthening the United Nations and forming an international court to try crimes of terrorism or genocide.

As chairman of the Center for Voting and Democracy and its program FairVote from 1996 to 2008, Anderson backed a constitutional amendment to dissolve the Electoral College. He also proposed automatic voter registration for all high school seniors.

Since 1996, Anderson was affiliated with the Washington law firm of Greenberg & Lieberman.

Anderson was mostly remembered for his presidential bid and the flurry of excitement that it sparked. At one campaign stop shortly before the general election, he referenced Theodore Roosevelt, a former Republican president whose "Bull Moose" campaign for the White House on a Progressive ticket in 1912 was the most successful third-party attempt of the 20th century.

"The credit belongs to the man," he said, who knows "the great enthusiasm, the great devotion and spends himself in a worthy cause, who if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

John B. Anderson during his presidential campaign in 1980, speaking before a chamber of commerce group in New Hampshire. (Frank Johnston/Washington Post)
John B. Anderson during his presidential campaign in 1980, speaking before a chamber of commerce group in New Hampshire. (Frank Johnston/Washington Post)

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