John Anderson died Sunday night at the ripe old age of 95. A Republican Representative from Illinois, he pursued a quixotic quest for the presidency in 1980, losing in the Republican primaries and then running as an independent against incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Anderson did well in the polls for a while but ultimately lost, getting only a little over 6 percent of the popular vote while Ronald Reagan achieved an electoral college landslide.
I was one of the 6 percent. I voted for Anderson because I thought President Carter was totally in over his head and Ronald Reagan was potentially dangerous. In contrast to those two, Anderson seemed like a sober, sensible alternative who would be fiscally prudent, careful yet firm in his foreign policy, and capable of dealing with the many challenges that the United States faced in the world, whether it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the taking of hostages in Iran. Even when it became clear that Anderson wouldn’t win, I still thought it was worth voting for somebody who I believed would actually be a good President, rather than settling for the lesser of two evils between the two major party candidates.
At the time, I thought that maybe the number of votes for Anderson might cause the major parties to change their ways and nominate better candidates in the future, or encourage others to run as third parties. I’m sure the Ross Perot voters in 1992 felt the same way. But of course, it didn’t happen. Instead, the Jimmy Carter supporters blamed Anderson for Carter’s loss, reasoning that he was drawing votes away that would have gone to the incumbent President if Anderson hadn’t been in the race. It’s a classic example of how politicians are wired to always blame somebody or something else for failure, rather than looking at their own deficiencies, shortcomings, and bad decisions.
Reading about Anderson’s death made me remember what it felt like in America in 1980, with an economy that seemed totally inert and helplessly in the grip of high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment, the continuing national humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis, with newscasters ticking off each day in which the hostages remained captive, an apparently rejuvenated Soviet Union ready to challenge a seemingly weak United States everywhere on the world stage . . . and a President who seemed fundamentally incapable of dealing with those problems. As a graduating college student with a journalism degree, I wondered how I would find a job when newspapers were closing left and right and nobody seemed to be hiring. It was a dismal, scary period — in its own way, every bit as scary as the 2009 recession.
In those grim times, voting for John Anderson made a lot of sense to me. I still think he would have made a good President.