Lafayette Park, across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., is a nice place to read -- "Live by the Bomb, Die by the Bomb!" -- to sleep, to remember. It is also as close to the White House as John Anderson has come since he ran for president as an independent eight years ago and became a political pariah. He squints and smiles at a photographer: "No wistful captions -- 'Anderson looks at the White House and thinks what might have been.' "

The park is almost empty at noon except for an irreverent bird perched on Lafayette's head. "No respect," Anderson says. An old man snores -- "at least I haven't taken to sleeping on benches since my overwhelming defeat." A homeless man sprawled on the grass -- "there's one unfortunate individual left behind in the prosperity of the Reagan era."

The voice is wry, almost merry, and sounds somehow too big for him. The white hair seems whiter than in memory -- a halo atop a cherubic grin. It's hard to believe this is the man House colleagues once called St. John the Righteous.

Anderson pauses, reading aloud from a placard beneath a tree. " 'Wanted in '88 -- wisdom and honesty,' " he says, his voice booming into the wind. "Now there's a platform for '88. Maybe this will give me the inspiration I've been lacking."

He still lives in Washington but leads a life -- writing, teaching, lecturing -- far from the political fray. "Turning my back on the White House," he says, walking on. "You know, I have a confession to make. I thought I should prepare for this, sit down and read things. And then I said, 'Oh, what the hell. I'm not running for anything.' "

But everyone else is -- even Gary Hart. "I think it's kind of sad," Anderson says. "He's once again demonstrated a truly lamentable lack of political judgment. He probably senses, despite the proliferation of candidates, that there is no one exciting universal attention and acceptance ... I think he's going to find out time has moved on. The time for Gary Hart is no longer.

"You have to accept there is a season, to quote Ecclesiastes. There was a season. Does it make me think, 'Why not I?' No, not at all. That would completely contradict the judgment I just made on him."

"Is it a bad time?" Anderson asks the maitre d' at the Members Dining Room in the Capitol. "No sir," he replies, showing him to a window table. Anderson, who rarely returns to the House, where he served 20 years, 10 as chairman of the House Republican Conference, follows quickly, nodding to a few familiar faces. He has no urge to work the room. What he has an urge for is a tuna sandwich. "You forget," he says, "I don't have to be nice to anybody anymore."

These are some of the words Anderson uses to describe the current political condition: desolate, decayed, desiccated, fallow. He also says: "I think the parties are just a disgrace."

Honesty -- telling a constituency what it least wants to hear -- can be a volatile commodity. Suddenly, improbably, briefly in 1980, Anderson was politically combustible, igniting a disillusioned, disaffected electorate. He went to Iowa and told the farmers that Jimmy Carter's grain embargo was the right thing for the country even if it wasn't right for them. He went on television and told Ronald Reagan there was no way you could cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget, unless you did it with mirrors.

A lobbyist whose name Anderson has forgotten sidles by and murmurs something about "smoke and mirrors." Anderson smiles. "What the heck," he says. "Some people remember."

There is vindication in his prescience. "I'm only human," he says. "I'm no paragon of virtue. I've got to feel -- I don't want to say a sense of satisfaction, because I'm not gloating. I'm genuinely worried. I've got five children."

Like most Americans, Anderson does not have a candidate for 1988. He supported Walter Mondale in 1984 and has been approached by a few seeking his support this year. He isn't ready to commit himself. He doesn't believe the Democrats will nominate anyone currently running. He doesn't believe in much the Republicans have to say. He calls the current campaign "a drama played out in the theater of the absurd."

Between bites, he rates the players.

Bush: "If the country feels they need the consummate Reagan loyalist in 1988, then surely he will be nominated. But I doubt, after the mess Reagan has made of everything he has touched, the country will come to that conclusion."

Dole: "I knew Bob Dole when he was more interested in Kansas wheat farmers than anything else. But Dole's biggest disability in 1988 is that he is so much a Beltway candidate. But after what people have learned about what's gone on in this administration, I'm not sure that's the stellar quality people are searching for."

Kemp: "Curiously, I feel grudging admiration for him, in the sense that he is clearly the most ideological candidate on either side. I don't subscribe to his ideology -- mine is 180 degrees in the other direction -- but I have some admiration for someone that even while sitting at 7 percent in the polls apparently is going to go down to the wire talking about specific things that constitute the framework of his approach."

Robertson, du Pont, Haig: There is a pause and a sigh.

"I think they're just excrescences," he says finally. "Pardon me. I don't mean to be irreverent. Du Pont was through and had nothing better to do, apparently. I have to agree with George Bush. He sounds kind of nutty at times.

"Haig. Hmmm. Well. I should think of some Haigspeak. He's a real cipher in the campaign. I don't even know what his constituency is unless it's retired Army officers.

"Pat Robertson, the man who, like King Canute, would try to command the tides to stand still. In a sense, there's a little bit of the lightning rod quality to the Robertson campaign because he's getting the evangelical charismatic Christians to come out of the woodwork on his behalf. But he has no program. He has no vision. His is merely, 'Let's put Bible reading and prayer back in school, let's drive the homosexuals underground with mandatory {AIDS} testing, let's get rid of evil in our midst, and out of that purification process will come this stronger, more militarily powerful America.' "

Across the room, a former colleague catches his eye. In an instant, for an instant, he is on -- a pol again. "There's one of the good guys," he says. "Tony Beilenson of California. He was the only Democrat who put in my 50 cents {gasoline} tax bill."

Many people, including his wife Keke, believe he could have found a home in the Democratic Party. He had come to Washington in 1961 as a fire-breathing, born-again Christian conservative who would propose a "Jesus Amendment" to make America a Christian nation and end up casting the decisive vote for open-housing legislation in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. Anderson disagrees, though he admits he is more liberal than he was eight years ago -- the result, he says, of "the excesses of the Reagan administration, as they have fed the greed of the rich."

He considers the Democrats.

Jackson: "I think he has a real feeling of empathy with the problems of the poor. But I don't have the feeling that for all his good intentions he possesses the kind of qualities the next leader of this country must have."

Babbitt: "If they gave merit badges, as they do in the Boy Scouts, I think he'd have more than his share. He merits badges for candor and honesty. So I have to say, almost with a twinge of regret, that he's just one more of many good men who sooner or later will leave the race."

Simon: "I feel a real affection for him. He's flinty of character, honest. On education and conservation I find it very difficult to fault any of his substantive ideas. But he was burned badly on taxes in 1972 in his campaign for the Democratic {Senate} nomination. Maybe that's why he's gun-shy."

Dukakis: "One cannot spend an evening with Mike without being impressed with his intelligence. He certainly understands the importance of economic growth and the necessity of this country maintaining its economic leadership. I have to fault him, as I do Paul Simon, on the broad issue of telling people there are going to be times when it's not going to be easy, that we're going to have to pay higher taxes and live less well."

Gephardt: "Despite his energy and uncommonly good intelligence, I'm vaguely bothered that there's a little pandering to those elements in the Democratic Party that are looking for the quick fix."

Gore: "He has tried to carve out a rather stern and conservative posture to shore up the Democratic Party against charges they are soft on communism. The Democrats can rebut it easily enough without building more missiles."

He sighs. "We need someone who will acknowledge that the world is not only economically but politically interdependent. Maybe I should start a boomlet for {former Federal Reserve chairman} Paul Volcker."

Anderson gulps his diet soda and checks his watch. He is late for a seminar at the National Defense University -- or at least he thinks he is. Someone once said of his administrative skills: He couldn't organize a three-car parade. Old friends call his name and reach for his hand as he tries to make a quick getaway. "I met you at a rally for Fritz Mondale," he tells Rep. Frank Guarini (D-N.J.). Guarini looks at him blankly.

"Was it raining?" he says finally.

"Yes," Anderson replies. "It rained on our parade and then we went and stood on a toxic waste dump or something else equally heroic."

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), an old friend, looks up from his table. "Aren't you running?" he asks.

"For what?" Anderson says.

"For president."

"You going to carry my petitions?" Anderson replies and exits leaving them laughing.

He was 45 minutes early for the seminar. Now he's stuck in rush hour traffic. Gridlock is also a metaphor for how he sees the current political scene.

The only prediction he will make about 1988 is that the percentage of eligible voters casting ballots will drop below 50 percent. He argues that the swelling numbers of those not voting is prima facie evidence of the "deformation of the political process." And the public pining for Mario Cuomo is "almost another sign how desperately ill this political process has become, to have to cling to that slender reed of hope that maybe out of the mists will emerge, if not Magical Mario, someone to rescue us from the totality of this ridiculous circus that's been going on for two years."

Anderson calls this an age of individual political entrepreneurs, "a mediacracy," in which the parties have become "disembodied, spectral in their influence, hollowed out rather than hallowed." In the absence of strong party leadership, he says, candidates who once would have been taken aside in a smoke-filled room and told the facts of life flourish.

He points to Robertson and Jackson as examples -- preachers on either end of the political spectrum who have considerable support and leverage if not electability. "A decayed, desiccated political process lends itself to the proliferation of candidates of the most unusual stripes because there is an existing vacuum. They somehow sense an ability to rush in and fill at least a portion of it."

His voice deepens with incredulity: Democrats wooing fiscal "buccaneer" Donald Trump. Reporters grilling candidates about marijuana and adultery ("I hope I'd tell them ... 'As long as they don't do it in the streets' "). And then in New Hampshire, "people assaulting each other with stapling guns about where we're going to hang our posters. And amid the cacophony a few pallid speeches."

He shakes his head. "We vainly wait for this ridiculous winnowing process to produce a leader," he says. "We have denigrated and disgraced the whole nominating process for years now ... It isn't that we've got such a political drought because none of these seedlings has sprouted and showed signs of becoming that great oak we need. It isn't the men at all. It is a systemic failure. Nobody, but nobody, is going to run in these primaries and be selected in this way and look good anymore."

Anderson argues that the parties must recapture their historic functions or die. His solution: a third party, to fill the ideological void. He believes the legacy of his candidacy will be as "a historical reference point to a growing recognition, not yet complete, that the old structures of the present political system are going to have to be replaced by something. It's not yet clear what it will be or who that person will be who will lead it."

There are those, such as Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), who see Anderson's candidacy as a political comet, one of those celestial events that happen once every century or so, destined to be remembered as a footnote, not a harbinger. "He performed a function," Udall says. "To prescribe that medicine for the indefinite future, I don't think history justifies it."

And there are those, such as William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who agree with much of Anderson's diagnosis but not his conclusion. "The third-party route is doomed to failure," he says.

"Our political parties change in response to events. There are always casualties of those changes, interesting, colorful people who often say shrewd, insightful things, people who represent the older political traditions gone by the board. They're always predicting dire catastrophe. They never pan out because the parties are so pragmatic and opportunistic."

"If the political parties are spectral, so would any third party be," says Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), who now holds Anderson's seat. "The intellectual fallacy is not that the two parties are wonderful but that the third party would suffer from the same things."

Anderson shrugs. "I was accused of tilting at windmills," he says. "I was called Don Quixote. They even named the campaign plane after his horse.

"They called it Rocinante."

A year or so ago, Anderson went to lunch at Duke Zeibert's with Mark Bisnow, the formerly disheveled press secretary made famous in the early days of the campaign by the "Doonesbury" comic strip. "Duke personally escorted us to a table in the far corner of the room," Bisnow says. "We deluded ourselves into thinking he recognized Anderson and was giving us privacy. Then he comes running over five minutes later and says, 'Mr. Anderson, I didn't recognize you. Please come to the front.'

" 'Fame is so fleeting,' he said."

Says Anderson: "I couldn't have cared less."

He misses the platform but not the glare that goes with it. After the campaign, he worked for a while as a television commentator in Chicago but, he notes wryly, was preempted during sweeps week for a series on sex over 60. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is a "peripatetic professor," most recently at Nova University Center for the Study of Law in Florida, where he taught constitutional law last semester. He called home every morning to awaken his youngest daughter, who is still in high school here.

At 65, Anderson says he is at that awkward age -- too young to retire, too old to begin anew. "I'm still a little bemused by this thought people have that you can't be actively engaged in politics and then turn your attention to something else for a time," he says. "If you write that I can escape all of this and be perfectly happy and content in myself, the cynics will read it: 'Aha, who's he trying to kid? He'd be the first one back there if anyone would have him.'

"I had my chances, my offers to do the conventional thing of lobbying and taking an office on the K Street corridor. I've enjoyed a more contemplative life. I'm not Thoreau. I'm not about to go out and sit by Walden Pond all by myself ... But I am content within myself."

In 1983-84 he tried and failed to get the National Unity Party on the ballot in Ohio and California. In the early flush of Reaganomics, no one wanted to hear about alternatives or smoke and mirrors. He wrote a book, "The American Economy We Need -- and Won't Get From the Republicans or the Democrats," a platform of sorts, which was published the day after he announced he would not run in 1984. The coup de grace was a letter signed by most of the constituent groups he expected to support him that said, in essence, "You'll reelect Reagan."

In 1986 he was approached by a group wanting him to run for the Senate as an independent from Illinois but he declined. As for the House, he says, "Even with a life sentence, in most states you get parole after 20 years."

Cliff Brown, a former aide, now teaching at Union College in New York, says, "I think he would like to be back involved but I don't think he knows the vehicle for it. He's said, 'If it turns totally horrible, I might run again. But the situation would have to be so horrible for me to run again that we wouldn't want to see it happen.' I reminded him of this after the {October} crash. He said, 'Well, we still have a ways to go.' "

Anderson laughs and nods. "I'm certainly not going to renounce and take the veil any ambition for contributing something to a future administration if that opportunity were to present itself."

In 1978, the last time he ran for Congress, Anderson survived a bitter primary challenge from a born-again Christian minister who mobilized the new right against him and in so doing sowed the seeds for his presidential campaign. William Galston, once his senior speech writer, now director of economics and social programs at the Roosevelt Center, says that by 1980 Anderson was so contemptuous of the new right, he could no longer conceal it: "The critical moment came during the Illinois debate, when Ronald Reagan leaned over and said, 'John, would you really prefer Teddy Kennedy to me?' "

He has been a political exile ever since -- which may, ultimately, be his legacy. There are those, such as Schneider, who see Anderson as a casualty of political realignment, a man with no political home, typical of many Americans. "Like Anderson, most voters feel uncomfortable {with the Republicans and the Democrats}," he says. "He's right. The old parties were less ideologically consistent and fit the voters better."

Anderson continues to argue the merits of a third party in that sonorous voice of his even as he accepts the unlikeliness of the enterprise. It's hard to know whether he is a visionary able to see and say what those in power cannot or a man whose vision prevents him from seeing what others can.

He stands in the kitchen of his Northwest Washington home, the sun setting behind him. Backlit against the window, he threatens to disappear. "You can't have this constant litany of disappointment, those failed leaders, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, without eventually, and I do not think too much longer, maybe this historical breakthrough will occur where people will say, 'We've got to change the system.' The movers and shakers in Washington notwithstanding, things will happen and events will move and change."

He seems genuinely perplexed that the people have not already come to this conclusion. He ponders for a moment what it is they want in 1988. "Maybe it goes back to that sign we saw in Lafayette Square," he says. "Wisdom and honesty. You can't reinvent the wheel and you can't reinvent better words."