The Worst Loneliness Facing Rep. John Anderson Is That of the Short-Distance Runner

updated 02/04/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1980 01:00AM

Not so long ago his candidacy was a Saturday Night Live joke: "If anyone has information on the whereabouts of John Anderson, please call this toll-free number." In the crowded Republican field of Campaign '80, he was the invisible man. No press attended his movements, his war chest was tiny and his hopes were dim. But then the 57-year-old Illinois congressman went to Iowa. He had already written off his chances in the caucus (and last week's results bore him out), but the CBS-carried debate of GOP contenders was a chance to be seen and heard at last. It paid off. Since then he is no longer John Why, but rather a potential spoiler (if not winner) in New Hampshire. His fund raisers have been SRO, and if he still has no regular press contingent and only some $500,000 for the federal government to match (as against $5.9 million for Reagan), he is at least not so alone anymore. "I enjoy the attention," Anderson admits. "I'm only human. I've taken a lot of lonely trips."

Ironically, Anderson may well be the campaign press corps's favorite candidate—in part, no doubt, because distance lends enchantment, but also for his qualities as a man and politician. Not once in the campaign to date has he been caught cynically matching his positions to the public mood. He remains almost the lone champion of a 50¢ gasoline tax to discourage consumption (coupled with a 50 percent cut in Social Security taxes that would return the revenue to citizens), and he is unequivocal on women's freedom to choose abortion ("It should be between her, her physician and her God"). He is the only candidate of either party who is still talking about cuts in defense spending or about the importance of passing SALT II. On behalf of his positions, he is thoughtful, articulate and persuasive. The Des Moines Register has called him "a silver-haired orator with a golden tongue, a 17-jewel mind and a brass backbone." Recently the New York Times, though it has endorsed no one yet, pointedly titled an admiring editorial on Anderson: "Why not the best?"

"I am not Don Quixote out tilting at windmills," he insists. "This is not simply an impossible dream." It is close. Even a fellow member of the party's House leadership (Anderson ranked third until he resigned as chairman of the House Republican Conference last June) admits there is a serious problem. "John's basic philosophy is too liberal for the delegates who attend conventions," says Minority Whip Robert Michel of Illinois. "His strong point for the Presidency is his weakness with the party." But Anderson argues that his chances of success and his party's in 1980 ride on their ability to persuade independents and Democrats to cross over. "My whole background makes me understand the attitudes of the very, very average American," he says. "It bothers me the Republican party somehow doesn't."

A man both intensely serious and irrepressibly sunny, Anderson split his boyhood between his immigrant father's grocery store in Rockford, Ill. and the local Swedish evangelical church, where he experienced a "cataclysmic" religious conversion at the age of 9. He now downplays his still deep religious commitment, but briefly considered becoming a minister. Anderson brought home four battle stars from World War II, and after graduation (Phi Beta Kappa) from the U of Illinois and its law school he was accepted for a Foreign Service posting. A passport-photo session led to a date with the photographer, Boston-born Keke Machakos, and a relationship that culminated in his wiring her two months later from Berlin: "Will you still come to me?" Her reply was no-nonsense: "Interpreting your telegram as proposal. Send money." He did. Last month they celebrated their 27th anniversary.

Anderson returned to Rockford to practice law and was catapulted into the state attorney general's office at the age of 34. A God-and-country conservative when he first went to Congress in 1960, Anderson has since been called a "turncoat" by his critics. He admits to a change of heart. "I don't think you can go through the experiences we had in the '60s—especially the civil rights movement—without being affected," he says. A watershed for him was the 1968 open housing bill, which passed out of his Rules Committee by a one-vote margin—his. In April 1974 he became the first Republican to call for Nixon's resignation.

Like most Republican liberals, Anderson is asked why he doesn't become a Democrat. To him the question betrays the GOP's problem. "My heart is on the left but my pocket-book is on the right," he says. "The challenge is trying to reshape the Republican party into a vehicle capable of representing a majority in this country." And if he fails in 1980? "I don't see myself as another Harold Stassen," he says. "I'll look for the next mountain to climb."

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