Anderson believed that in politics lay the power — and imperative — to forge a more just society

— Photo by Leffler, Warren K., photographer. - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

John Anderson

To the Editor:

On June 22, 2018, America will lay to rest a noble treasure in the Arlington National Cemetery. And though I won’t be able to attend the memorial service, I’ll nonetheless be saying a farewell prayer for my friend.

John Bayard Anderson was born to Swedish immigrants in Illinois on Feb. 15, 1922. He enlisted in the Army after college and attained the rank of staff sergeant while serving as an artilleryman in Europe during the final years of World War II.

He obtained his law degree when he returned, and a few years later married the woman who would one day be my landlady: Keke Machakos, the fascinating woman whom I only ever knew as “Mrs. Anderson.”

It was in pursuit of my own law degree that I met Mrs. Anderson 10 years ago, in the summer of 2008.  My father had accompanied me to Washington, D.C., to search for apartments, and a Craigslist ad eventually drew us to a modest house on the corner of a quiet street in Spring Valley.

A friendly and energetic woman in her mid-seventies introduced herself at the door, and was soon showing us the basement apartment available for rent. I was only peripherally aware of my father’s conversation with Mrs. Anderson as I inspected what would come to serve as my home over the next three-and-a-half years.

“What brought you to Washington?” my father asked, flexing his masterful penchant for mindless small talk. I’d already been subjected several times that morning to the retelling of his sojourn as a cab driver in the District 30 years earlier, but this conversation proved more difficult to ignore.

“Well, my husband served in Congress for several years,” Mrs. Anderson replied.

“Oh, what was his name?” Dad posed the question as if being a congressman were quaint.

“John,” she said.  “But we got sick of what happened to Congress. That’s why he ran for president.”

My father halted, stunned. “Wait — your husband is the John Anderson?”

“Of course,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Who else would he be?”

John Anderson won election as state’s attorney for his hometown Illinois county in 1956, and that might have been the end of his political career had it not been for the timely retirement of his district’s representative. In 1961, the Honorable John B. Anderson was elected to his first of 10 terms in Congress.  He served Illinois’s 16th congressional district until 1981, and was chairman of the House Republican Conference — the party’s third-ranking position — from 1969 to 1979.

In the years following that drive back from Washington, wherein my Dad had excitedly recounted the story of John Anderson’s insurgent presidential campaign, I came to know Mr. Anderson not as a politician, but as a thoughtful grandfather at peace with a life well-lived.

By the time I met him in his late eighties, he had forsaken even the mantle of elder statesman — possessed as he was of a modesty imposed by the frailties of age — and embraced his advancing limitations with grace and witty self-deprecation.

“I always suspected that the good Lord had a plan for me,” he once exclaimed, as I slowly assisted him into a car. “I just didn’t expect that it was to be a burden on society.”

It’s strange to encounter living figures of history — those who once wielded influence or who had commanded the nation’s attention — in the twilight of their lives. Despite the countrywide recognition he’d received for his deep baritone voice and powerful, soaring oratory 40 years earlier, Mr. Anderson mostly just listened whenever we discussed the matters of the day.

Perhaps he felt he’d said enough by then. Still, there were moments where I detected pride in his past accomplishments, like the time he appeared on the basement stairs and observed my friends and me below, being delinquent.

“This scene warms my heart,” he announced grandly, but still as if to himself, before disappearing back into the quarters above.

He wasn’t referencing the permeating aroma, of course, but rather the commingled black and white faces of people hanging out together in his home. When I saw him later that day, he proudly declared: “I was the deciding vote of the Civil Rights Act of 1968!”

Also known as the Fair Housing Act, that legislation was instrumental in facilitating the residential desegregation of America. Mr. Anderson’s role in securing its passage was his proudest legislative achievement.

His declaration — which I’d once taken with a grain of salt — was in fact dramatically true, for he’d broken ranks with his party to support the bill, rescuing it from death in the Rules Committee to receive a full vote on the House floor. (President Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law one week after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

Reflecting on this now, it’s kind of overwhelming to consider that the unassuming gentleman with the cane and milk-white hair who lived above me had so personally facilitated the radical reshaping of society.  

Mr. Anderson believed that in politics lay the power — and imperative — to forge a more just society. His increasing exposure to the Civil Rights movement had precipitated a remarkable political evolution from one end of the political spectrum to the other.

By the time he ran for president, this devout Christian from America’s heartland supported the Equal Rights Amendment, food-stamp programs, and freedom of choice on abortion. He strongly criticized the Vietnam War and, despite his position in party leadership, was the first Republican to call for President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

“When in this country we license people to drive automobiles,” he once asked during a primary debate, “what is so wrong about proposing that we license guns to make sure that felons and mental incompetents don’t get ahold of them?”

In the words of Gerald Ford (as celebrated in the 1980 Anderson campaign commercials you can still scope on YouTube): “He’s the smartest guy in Congress, but he insists on voting his conscience instead of party.”

For Anderson, “party” wasn’t an identity; it was, rather, a procedural mechanism for securing a place on the ballot and consolidating support as the political process winnowed contenders to an eventual choice among patriots who loved their country equally, but who merely advocated different philosophies as to how to express that devotion.

John Anderson campaigned for the presidency of the United States as a Republican in the 1980 national elections. But, when he lost the primary, he bolted from his position as a party leader to mount a historic independent campaign.

On Election Day, he received nearly 7 percent of the popular vote, a feat barely replicated in American history. (Most tangibly, a groundbreaking 1983 Supreme Court decision regarding ballot access for independent candidates bears his name.)

“It sounds like a cult!” he once bemoaned to me about the name he and his team had selected for their ticket. But from where I write, overseas, gazing back home in helpless despair at an America coming apart at the seams, “National Unity Party” strikes a note of hope that I wish I could feel now.

His message was one of enduring optimism, and was justly celebrated in scores of glowing tributes that appeared in the obituary pages of both right- and left-leaning newspapers.

In the days after his passing, I emailed one of those fellow former law school delinquents to describe my dismay at the reports of social discord and political dysfunction reaching me from back home, lamenting the loss of a statesmen who had served his country when politics were, as I described them, “still civil and genteel.”

My friend’s emailed response was sobering: “What are you talking about?  He came on the scene a couple years after McCarthyism, a couple years before George Wallace’s ‘segregation now, segregation forever’ and Strom Thurmond screaming that [blacks] shouldn’t be let into y’alls swimming pools. It was the ’60s, dude. King, Malcolm, a couple Kennedys, KENT STATE?!?!  It’s not that politics back then were ‘genteel and civil’; it’s just that John Anderson always was.”

Indeed.

For a certain sort, John Anderson represented an honesty, rejuvenation, and kindness in politics that won him millions of supporters among moderates and the politically disaffected, on college campuses, and within intellectual circles on both sides of the political spectrum. So naturally: He lost.

But not without igniting the imaginations of those who, like my Dad’s incessantly contrarian friend Jeff, even today wear it as a badge of honor that they cast their vote for Anderson on Nov. 4, 1980.

In “No Holding Back,” a book about his presidential bid, Anderson is quoted thusly: “I felt that I had made my mark on the pages of history and laid down some markers for others possibly to follow.”

I see in that sentiment both an introspection befitting an old man at the end of an extraordinary journey, but also an encouraging challenge to those who would see in his past example a roadmap for a future politics. And while I may never be as successful in my endeavors as John Anderson was in his, I certainly hope to live a life worthy of inspiring someone the way he did me.

John Anderson passed away on Dec. 3, 2017, a couple of months shy of his 96th birthday. His wife was by his side when he died, as she had been during the course of their 64-year marriage, during his inspiring bid for the presidency of the United States, and during the countless conversations I shared with them at their dinner table in Washington, D.C.

To me, Mr. Anderson was just the reserved and insightful gentleman who patiently indulged my idealistic pontifications. But in fact, he was the John Anderson.

And, of course, who else would he be?

Jesse Sommer

Iraq

Editor’s note: CPT Jesse Sommer is deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. He was raised in Voorheesville.

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