America’s politics can be better. John Anderson’s 1980 presidential campaign shows how.

Illinois Congressman John B. Anderson wanted to make a statement to the political community. He ran a campaign that showed that voters respected more honest, forthright, and less image-oriented candidates

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Illinois Congressman John D. Anderson, shown here in 1974, ran for president in 1980 as an Independent.

Illinois Congressman John D. Anderson, shown here in 1974, ran for president in 1980 as an Independent.

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Few could argue that the political landscape of 2022 is troubling. Congress is mired in strict partisanship, lack of civility, and intransigence. Discussions of ideas rarely happen. Making statements that stray from party orthodoxy can be fatal. People see a broken system and their hope that it will improve seems fleeting.

It’s a reminder of a previous era when politicians pursued more altruistic agendas. One such office holder was John B. Anderson, a 10-term congressman from Rockford. The 100th anniversary of Anderson’s birth was celebrated on Feb. 22.

Throughout his congressional career, Anderson was known for his support of civil rights, environmental and campaign finance legislation. But he became best-known for his unique presidential campaign in 1980 — first as a candidate for the GOP nomination and then against Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan as an Independent.

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Anderson was greatly respected in Washington circles, but he wanted to make a statement to the political community before he retired. His gave up his seat, his House leadership position, and the chance to run for an open Senate seat for an improbable presidential candidacy. Anderson had grown frustrated by problems that exist today: the influence of special interest groups, the inability of party leadership to work together, and the reluctance of politicians to accurately describe the challenges that country was facing.

In an atmosphere of an energy crisis, a poor economy, and spiraling inflation, Anderson believed a more direct approach was needed.

For his political swan song, Anderson threw out the conventional campaign playbook. He ran as a kind of anti-candidate. Instead of telling audiences what they wanted to hear, he often went out of his way to do the opposite.

His speeches to Republican audiences frequently mentioned the party’s obligation to show more compassion to the underprivileged. In Iowa, he asked farmers to support a grain embargo to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He said that farmers needed to set the example and appealed to them to accept some sacrifice. In New Hampshire, he appeared at a forum for gun owners. While other candidates invoked their histories as hunters or patriots, Anderson spoke about creating controls for purchasing concealable handguns that were used in violent crimes. Each time, Anderson would leave the stage to tepid applause or a parade of catcalls and hisses.

Winning minds, not hearts

To some, these appearances were the sign of a politician who was out of touch with his audience. To others, Anderson was brave and refreshing. His approach drew interest from the political community. Walter Cronkite followed him as he campaigned in New Hampshire. Bill Moyers made a flattering film about him. Joseph Kraft called him “the candidate most qualified to be president.” The Sun-Times endorsed Anderson in the Illinois primary over Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Throughout his campaign, Anderson was more intent on winning the minds of voters than their hearts. When questioned about an issue, he often gave long answers while reciting statistics from studies to support them. Reporters left interviews impressed with his breadth of knowledge. “I have never interviewed a politician so open to argument and so unafraid of being done in by a reporter,” Robert Scheer noted.

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In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Anderson’s unique approach helped him develop a broad following. He switched to an independent campaign and polled as high as 26% in a three-way race. But without a convention, having to qualify for ballots, and without the public financing given to his rivals, Anderson lost ground. He had a nationally televised debate with Reagan, but Carter refused to participate. It denied Anderson the chance to be seen as a genuine co-equal. As the Carter-Reagan race drew close, supporters pivoted to their second choice and Anderson finished with 7%.

Nonetheless, Anderson’s candidacy has an important legacy. It reminded people that politics could be better. It showed that voters respected more honest, forthright, and less image-oriented candidates. For many, it increased faith that politics could be more pure and honorable. Voters liked Anderson because he was different, frank, and operated without partisanship playing such a major role.

Someone who took that approach today might find a similarly positive public reaction, in the spirit of John Anderson. It would be much more than a novelty or curiosity.

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Jim Mason is the author of “No Holding Back: The 1980 John B. Anderson Presidential Campaign,” published by University Press of America, He lives in New York City.

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