Publisher’s View: John B. Anderson

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Late last year, John B. Anderson died at the age of 95.  Anderson, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, unsuccessfully ran for his party’s nomination for the presidency in 1980.  When he failed in that quest he launched an independent campaign for the office, ultimately securing almost seven percent of the national vote.

I first encountered Anderson on television, watching him, from my parent’s Palo Alto living room, debate six rivals for the Republican nomination.  Each assured the Gun Owners of New Hampshire that they firmly opposed gun control legislation.

“I don’t understand why,” Anderson countered. “When in this country we license people to drive automobiles, what is so wrong about proposing that we license guns to make sure that felons and mental incompetents don’t get ahold of them?”

He was roundly booed. 

Anderson had previously told Iowa voters that he favored President Jimmy Carter’s embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union after it’d invaded Afghanistan. He called for a 50-cents per gallon gasoline tax — when a gallon cost $1.15 — to save energy.

I was smitten.  Anderson’s fierce honesty, disciplined approach to public policies, and personal austerity – he presented like a mix between a Methodist priest, one-room school teacher, with a bit of Atticus Finch thrown in – shot through me like a bolt of electricity.  I left my parent’s house and returned to the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a freshman, and quickly found, and joined with, the handful of students who were campaigning for Anderson.

My work with the Anderson campaign shaped the rest of my life, personally and professionally.  I created profound bonds and romantic relationships. Some continue to this day, all influenced how I see and act in the world.  The ferocity with which I pursued the Anderson crusade set me up for a Washington, D.C. internship with my hometown U.S. Representative, which led to engagements with the gun control and anti-nuclear movements, and, ultimately, a graduate degree, and career, in public policy.    

As my first political love, Anderson also set me up for a lifetime of disappointment, as I tried repeatedly to recreate that initial passion.  I found advocacy groups to be intellectually shallow and overly strident, shadows of Anderson’s deeper thoughtfulness. And anyways, I was impatient: almost forty years later guns may only now be on the cusp of being somewhat better controlled, after more than one million firearm-related deaths, a solid chunk at schools.  Nuclear weapons have reemerged as legitimate war tools. 

Thirsty for intelligent debate, after graduate school I tried to convince myself that taking any side of a policy issue was legitimate, so long as the underlying arguments advancing it were intellectually honest.  It was a commitment to a kind of “love the one you’re with” model, embedded in the legal adage that everyone deserves a proper defense.  The approach enabled me to work for Ronald Reagan’s White House, and later as a consultant for the oil and chemical industries, experiences I ultimately rejected as lacking integrity in “Confessions of an Expert Witness,” an article I wrote for Legal Affairs magazine.  While everyone may deserve a proper defense, few people and purposes can afford one.

The challenge that Anderson, the candidate – the man no doubt grappled with his own demons – posed was how to be fully honest while being ideologically consistent, and, ultimately, successful.  In politics and public policy – as with marriage and deep friendships – these three elements rarely purely coincide.  Complex, sometimes painful, compromises must be made to be successful.  Apart from clergy, hermits, and some academics, neither unmitigated truth nor philosophical chastity tends to productively advance personal or professional agendas, expect as used sparingly and strategically, and often only after patiently waiting for a long time. 

In this respect, my love of Anderson was of the puppy kind, best approached as a phase to be passed through.  He was a unicorn a few of us caught a magical glimpse of, who, like that mythic creature, disappeared from view not long after wandering out of the wilderness.  Chasing that magic, trying to rekindle it in different settings, is an infantile pursuit. You can never go home; a return to Eden, assuming it actually existed, is impossible.

As H.L. Mencken wrote in 1940 about politicians,

I sometimes suspect that, like everyone else, I often expect too much of them…I not infrequently find myself looking to them to be able, diligent, candid, and even honest.  Plainly enough, that is too large an order, as anyone must realize who reflects upon the manner in which they reach public office.  They seldom if ever get there by merit alone, at least in democratic states…They are chosen normally for quite different reasons, the chief of which is simply their power to impress and enchant the intellectually underprivileged.  It is a talent like any other, and when exercised by a radio crooner, a move actor, or a bishop, it even takes on a certain austere and sorry respectability.  But it is obviously not identical with a capacity for the intricate problems of statecraft.

While we might whisper under our breaths about the other “stupid” voters, it’s politically incorrect to directly accuse the opposition of being “intellectually underprivileged,” though the current Presidential Administration has laid solid siege to that barrier.  Setting this point aside, Mencken’s insights, produced almost 80 years ago, remain apt.  Politicians, of the grand kind, are more akin to opera singers than policy analysts.  They need to croon a good song, carry a catchy tune.  And then voters have to hope that once they’re elected they pick a good team to actually address statecraft’s “intricate problems.”

In retrospect, I wish I’d tried to have a thoughtful conversation with Anderson in his later life, to ask him what’d he expected from his campaign, what’d he’d learned from it.  I’d have benefited from any aging wisdom he might have offered, or at least to have seen him aged.  Instead, the only time I came in direct contact with him was for a brief moment at Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Berkley campus, when I shook his hand after introducing him to a cheering crowd of thousands of undergraduates.  It’s a moment I won’t forget; mass enthusiasm for a politician attempting to tell the truth.