Not many remember good old John, but I do.
He was a Republican congressman from Illinois who had a safe seat. But in 1980, he decided to try for the Republican Party nomination for the presidency. His announcement came out of nowhere, and most chose to ignore it. But John got media attention by the way he talked. He was reasonable and intelligent and not at all dogmatic. Suddenly, his was a hot name in the very early stages of the race.
What was the big deal? John didn’t like the way the party was moving to the dogmatic right. He believed instead that the party should engage in an intelligent discussion of issues. He wanted the party to be the smart party. Let the democrats be dogmatic about questionable policy initiatives!
I thought John was pretty cool and I volunteered to work on his campaign. I was a just young dude living in Washington back then, and pretty soon I could see that the campaign had a surplus of young dudes in Washington who were crowding in to volunteer their time. A staffer asked me where I was from. “Delaware”, I said. “Nice! Would you be willing to go up there and help organize our campaign?”
It was a very cool idea, and I went up to Delaware a number of times to try to persuade Republicans that my parents knew to go for John. I was told, “You are a nice young guy, and I can see why you are attracted to Anderson. But switch to Reagan. He is going to win.”
Soon enough, it was clear that John’s chances of winning the Republican nomination were zero. Reagan was the man. Everyone knew that this meant a jump to the right, and some were leery about that. But they accepted it. John decided to run as an independent. I thought that was a mistake and I dropped out of his campaign. Reagan went on to beat Carter and John faded into obscurity. I moved on to other things.
But I will always remember the thrill of meeting up with a candidate whom I respected and liked. And that was John Anderson.
John just passed on, and I thank him for what he tried to do and for the thrills I had working on his campaign.
BTW, few now remember what a shift the Reagan folks brought to Washington. Back then, there was an East Coast moderate wing of the Republican Party that was led by Nelson Rockefeller. Gerald Ford was still hanging around in the background. But Reagan and his pals believed that they had discovered the secret to all things in the universe, and they purged the party of moderates who were not so persuaded. It was a historic move, and in my view, a disastrous one. But so it went.
Why am I so negative about that purge? When the Republicans went monotone, they lost their intellectual vitality. The party went brain dead, capable only of repeating past slogans — even when experience showed that they were not working. We have had a poorer public dialogue ever since.