Former president Gerald Ford was one of the first to predict it. A few weeks ago, he said "the net result" of John Anderson's independent candidacy for president would be that "the next president won't be chosen by the people, but by the politicians in the House of Representatives."
Under the Constitution, if no presidential candidate gets 270 electoral votes, the election is then decided by the newly elected House. There each state -- no matter what its size -- will have one vote, with 26 needed to elect a president.
This peciliar constitutional provision, last used in 1825, can give rise to almost unlimited possibilities for confusion, intrigue and mischief.
To capture the flavor of the constitutional crisis that may be the final scene of the 1980 election, we have created a fictional character, Richard Walker, and made him the newly elected Democratic congressman from Vermont. Let's take a look at some pages from his diary beginning with the morning after the 1980 election . . . November 5
It's about 4 in the morning, and I'm very drunk from too much champagne and excitement. Yes, Dick Walker, a 32-year-old lawyer with a two-bit law practice and an unemployed wife, ig going to Washington as Vermont's only congressman. No more carry-out pizza, no more fights with Becky about money -- soon it will be the Honorable Richard C. Walker, Member of Congress, holding his own at Georgetown dinner parties.
I still can't believe I won. You don't knock off a Republican incumbent in Vermont without money or strong party support. All I wanted to do was run so I could get my name known and get a little more legal business.
What a crazy night. John Anderson actually carried Vermont; Carter finished third here. It serves him right with 9 percent inflation. I knew I was doing the right thing when I told those students at Bennington that I was voting for Anderson. Party loyalty be damned.
Becky has gone to bed, but the television set is still on with John Chancellor talking about Reagan's narrow victory. Maybe he won't be such a bad president; at least we won't have a deadlock in the electoral college. November 5 (second entry)
It's now about 9:30 in the morning. The weirdest thing just happened; I just got a call from Jimmy Carter.
He sounded just like he does on TV, and he asked if Becky and I would like to come to Camp David for the weekend to rest up from the campaign.I was so stunned that all I could say is that we had planned to go to Becky's parents' place on the lake. I think I actually talked about babysitters. He sounded disappointed and asked if I would think it over.
According to the TV, Reagan may not be president after all. Absentee ballots have given Oregon to Anderson by 3,000 votes. The latest figures on the screen would show Reagan with 266 electoral votes. He got 39.7 percent of the popular vote, carrying almost all the West, important Sunbelt states such as Texas and Florida, and industrial states like New Jersey and Ohio.
Carter limped in with 37.6 percent of the popular vote and 234 electoral votes. With the exception of Hawaii, he didn't carry a state west of Minnesota. But he held his own in the South and narrowly won most of the key states in the Northeast and Midwest.
And John Anderson -- amazing John Anderson -- carried Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Oregon, with 38 electoral votes and 22.7 percent of the popular vote. I guess Anderson could claim to be president of those who live north of Boston.
Most important to me, the Democrats kept their majorities in Congress. We lost 22 seats in the House and 5 in the Senate but are still in control. November 6
Becky is not making things any easier. She insists we spend the weekend with her parents as planned. She says her parents haven't seen little Brad since his second birthday. The next minute she's saying we can't go to Camp David because Carter's pronuke and a war criminal; and, anyway, she has nothing to wear. I offered to buy her a new wardrobe, but she says I'm not in Congress yet and we can't afford it. November 7
The president called again late last night and all I could stammer was that we had other plans for the weekend. He said he understood how important family life was and complimented me on my values. He suggested that I call him when I get to Washington.
Both Time and Newsweek called to ask who I'd be voting for if the election went to the House. I started to say John Anderson, but then I got cautious and said any comment would be premature. November 11
The weekend with Becky's parents was better than I expected. Ralph, who over the years has called me a chump, a loser, a wimp, a bum and an ingrate, was introducing me to everyone as "my son-in-law the congressman."
I did have one big fight with Becky, though. She said I'd turn into a politician, just like the rest of them, and vote for Carter.She said that just because she dropped out of Mount Holyoke didn't mean she hadn't read "Lysistrata." November 17
Guess who was in town today? John Anderson and his wife Keke. I met them and Anderson's three Vermont electors at a restuarant in Burlington.
Anderson, who looked tired and dispirited, did most of the talking. He didn't have any notes, but he sounded as if he had diagrammed each of his complex sentences in his mind before he spoke.
"It was never my intention to create an electoral deadlock," he began. "Perhaps I was naive, but I believed I could win."
Here, Keke Anderson, a feisty little lady, broke in, "John, you still can win. The country needs you."
Anderson blushed beet red before saying softly, "Don't be silly, Keke."
He continued, as if the interruption had never occurred: "A deal in the electoral college or the House of Representatives would destroy the legitimacy of whoever was elected. I must keep my covenant with the 18 million Americans who voted for John Anderson, but I must also do what is right."
The problem is that Anderson can't figure out what is right. "The only thing I'm certain of," he said, "is that Ronald Reagan should not become president." But, in the next breath, Anderson said that electing Jimmy Carter "would be tantamount to declaring the office of the president vacant for the next four years."
Anderson has one other choice. He could drop out and try to throw his electoral votes to a third candidate. This could be important because under the Constitution the House must choose among the top three finishers in the electoral college.
"I would like to explore one additional thought with you," he said to each of the three electors. "Would you consider voting for Jerry Ford instead of John Anderson?"
Keke Anderson explained in an aside, "Jerry Ford has been a loyal friend to John."
The three Vermont electors weren't buying. Marge Nesbitt, a feminist who even Becky says is shrill, said, "If you withdraw, I'll vote for Gloria Steinem."
Mark McCoy, a ski resort owner, said, "No way, Jose."
Fred Harding, one of those Republican fossils in the state legislature, had the last word: "I never had much use for people who appear in celebrity golf tournments. I reckon that I'd sooner vote for Reagan." November 25
Tip O'Neill's office in the JFK Federal Building in Boston looks like a state set from The Last Hurrah. His anteroom is filled with a bunch of Boston pols smoking cheap cigars and talking about wakes. I felt a little peculiar in that setting with my Frye hiking boots, but the Speaker had asked me to stop by for a visit.
O'Neill offered me a cigar and asked if I wanted a drink, even though it was 10:30 in the morning. When I said Perrier, he sent one of his girls down to Ginty's to get a bottle.
The Speaker came right to the point. "Son, you have a bright future ahead of you in the House. The leadership could do a lot to help you get settled. We might even bend tradition and put you on a committee like Ways and Means. But first you have to show a little loyalty."
O'Neill then made very clear that "loyalty" meant voting for Jimmy Carter in the House. He explained that my election as the only congressman from Vermont gave the Democrats control of 26 states, the bare majority needed to elect Carter.
The Speaker leaned forward in his swivel chair, stared at me in what I think was his best Sam Rayburn imitation and said, "Before you leave this office, I want your pledge that you will vote for President Carter in the House if it comes to that."
I knew I couldn't do that; I wanted to keep my options open. I stared back as hard as I could and said, "Mr. Speaker, I just can't make that promise. If I don't, what will happen?"
O'Neill's face grew flushed, and he started grasping for words, "Why, why, why we'll just have to see." December 19
A lot has happened in the last few weeks, while Becky and I have been busy moving to Washington. This pushy real estate lady, who kept dropping names, has found us a house to rent on F Street, Northeast, about a mile's bike ride from the House offices. Becky said the neighborhood is "Mercedes mixed with nuscatel."
Everything got a little crazy in the few days before the electoral college voted on December 15. Two Carter electors from Kentucky claimed that they were each offered $150,000 by some unnamed oil men to vote for Reagan. John Anderson told his electors to "vote their conscience," but no one figured out what that meant. There were a flurry of Ford rumors, until the expresident appeared on a Bob Hope special and said that he wasn't a candidate, but added, "Betty would make a fine president.
In the end, we got a deadlock in the electoral college. But Reagan came awfully close. He picked up a Carter elector from Alambama and an Anderson elector from Maine. Eleven other Anderson electors voted for Ford. The final tally: Reagan, 268 votes; Carter, 233; Anderson, 26; and Ford, 11. The Senate will choose between Howard Baker and Walter Mondale for vice president.
Now that the election is going to the House, our social life has picked up a bit. Tomorrow Becky and I are having dinner with the Carters. Today she out to buy a new dress and made the mistake of telling the saleswoman in Garfinckel's that it was for a White House dinner. As Becky put it, "They held me prisoner in the designer dress boutique for 45 minutes. I only escaped by asking what they had in polyester for $40." December 20
We just came back from the White House, and I don't know whether to be embarrassed or proud of Becky. And it's not only because she looked so good in the green dress she made in weaving class.
Dinner was like talking with these nice, but dull, friends of your parents, who just happen to have Filipino servants. The Carters asked about little Brad and how we were getting along in Washington. Becky even told the funny story about how we met at a mixer in college.
Only after the chocolate mousse was served did the president start talking politics. He spoke in a soft voice about his "hopes for peace" and of "his dream of being a peacemaker among nations." He said that our country was suffering from a "malaise," that he had made some mistakes, but that he just knew if he just had more time he could be a "competent, fair, compassionate president who could bring out the inherent and innate goodness of the American people."
Rosalynn added, "Jimmy could be such a wonderful president in his second term."
I was trying to think of something statesmanlike to say in return when Becky started talking in the high-piched voice she gets when she's nervous.
"Mr. President," she said, "maybe I shouldn't be saying this, but I want you to know why I didn't vote for you and why I couldn't vote for you."
The president gave a broad smile and that gave Becky the courage to continue.
"As a woman," she said, "I just couldn't believe what you said about abortion. How life is unfair. Can't you understand a woman must have the right to control her body?"
The President's smile grew even broader.
"Then there's the MX missle," she said. The money you're spending for that could go for schools and day-care centers and recycling centers and solar energy."
I kept waiting for the Secret Service to burst through the door and throw us out.
But the President just smiled again and said softly, "I'm very glad you told me that Becky. I'm here to listen to the voices of the people. Anytime you or Dick have anything that's bothering you, please call me here at the White House."
Rosalynn whispered something to the president.
"I just thought of something," he said to Becky. "We've been looking for someone bright and outspoken for a vacancy on my Commission on Women. I'll call Lynda Robb in the morning and tell her all about you." December 25 Becky and I decided to have a little party on Christmas afternoon for the residents of the Granite State stuck here in Washington. I wanted to drink eggnog and sing carols, but everyone else wanted to drag me into a corner and talk politics.
First there was this beefy guy from the state labor federation who jabbed a finger in my stomach and said, "What's with you, Walker? Carter ain't much, I was a Kennedy man myself, but he's all we've got. If you buck the party, you're dead in this state. Do you get my drift?"
Then Pat Leahy, Vermont's only Democratic Senator, came by, threw an arm around my shoulder and said, "Dick, I know you have problems with Carter, but do you know what this administration could do to Vermont if you try to block him?" My eyes glazed over as he talked of UDAG grants, EDA loans and federal judgeships.
Next I had to put with four congressional interns from the University of Vermont who had a secret plan to elect Anderson in the House. They were followed by an industry lobbyist who said, "Face it, Reagan won the election. Give him your vote and we'll take care of you." Last came three anti-abortion crusaders. At least they wished me "Merry Christmas." December 29
I finally had another talk with Tip O'Neill in his hideaway office in the Capitol. This time he had six little bottles of Perrier in his liquor cabinet. His staff has been good to me. I think I'm the only freshman congressman with an office in the Rayburn Building.
Today was all soft sell. "We've been working out committee assignments," he said. "We have some interesting vacancies on Ways and Means, Judiciary and Armed Services. Are you interested?"
I gave a little nod, which was a big mistake. "Of course," he said, "We're going to introduce a little rule in the Democratic Caucus that says all Democrats must pledge to vote for President Carter or they will have to get their committee assignments from the Republicans."
This time I had rehearsed my answer. "Mr. Speaker," I said, "the people of Vermont voted for John Anderson. I'm going to do the same thing on the first ballot in the House. After that, we'll see."
I hope Becky is proud of me because after I left O'Neill's office I was shaking like a leaf for 20 minutes. December 30
I've been using the House gym as a special guest of the Speaker. While getting a massage today, I overheard a snatch of conversation: "This guy comes into my office, opens a brief case with $50,000 in cash, and says it's mine if I'll vote for Reagan. I thank I would have taken it if he didn't look like an FBI agent." December 31
I had a very friendly lunch at the Monocle with Irwin Feinberg, the liberal rabbi from Boston who took Father Drinan's seat in the House. He called me a "mensch," which I think was a compliment, and seemed to understand my commitment to Anderson.
After lunch we waded through a sea of TV cameras for a meeting of the ad hoc congressional caucus for a liberal president. There were about 35 of us there, mostly freshmen, plus a sprinkling of veteran members from states like New York.
The whole "shtik," as Feinberg would say, is to threaten to withhold votes from Carter until he makes specific commitments on the budget, jobs programs foreign policy and appointments. John Conyers was there from the Black Caucus. He said the blacks are sending their own list of demands to the White House. h
All this is mostly posturing, of course. Everyone concedes that the Democratic Caucus will decide to link committee assignments with voting for Carter.Freshmen don't have that much to lose; but senior Democrats, no matter how liberal they are, admit they'll be forced to vote for Carter. January 2
The vote in the Democratic Caucus wasn't even close. By a margin of 174-67 they agreed to expel from the caucus any Democrat who doesn't vote for Carter. But there is a bright spot. Until the roll of the states is called on January 6, I am the only freshmen member of the Ways and Means Committee. January 4
Ii went to a Sunday afternoon briefing by a Howard law professor on the procedures for selecting a president in the House. The only precedent is the House rules from the election of 1825.
Each state has one vote. To get it, one candidate must have an absolute majority of that state's representatives. Otherwise, it will be cast as "divided." Twenty-six states elect a president.
I had been a little fuzzy on what happens if the House is still deadlocked on Inauguration Day, January 20. This is certainly a possibility with the states, the Republicans with majorities in 14 and 10 states evenly divided. Without sounding too self-important the 50th vote belongs to me.
If the House has not selected a president by the 20th, the vice president, elected by the Senate, becomes "acting" president. If both houses are deadlocked, then Tip O'Neill becomes "acting" president under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. January 5
More pomp and circumstance. I was sworn in today as a member of Congress with Becky and little Brad waving from the gallery.
Washington is in an uproar. TV stations estimate there are 500,000 visitors in town to lobby their congressmen and hold demonstrations. The flags of the District of Columbia are at half-mast because this city does not have a presidential vote in the House. Six camera crews and about 150 demonstrators were camped outside my office at 8 this morning. When I saw them, I ran to the House gym to spend the morning in the sauna. January 6
Becky an I have gotten a new unlisted phone number. But that didn't prevent President Carter from calling this morning at 6:30, "just to chat." I agreed to meet him for breakfast tomorrow. He then spent 20 minutes talking with Becky about the Women's Commission.
The public seems as confused as the House about who should be president. The latest Gallup Polls shows that all three candidates have lost considerable support since the election. Fifty-four percent agreed with the statement, "I wish someone other than Reagan, Carter or Anderson could be president."
At noon, Congress met in joint session to officially count the electoral votes with Vice President Mondale presiding. Leaving the chamber, Mondale made a point of coming over to me, introducing himself and whispering a few words. There was a lot of noise in the chamber, but it sounded like he said, "Hang tough."
Given all the buildup, the actual balloting in the House was curiously anticlimatic. We took three ballots today before adjourning, and the votes were the same on all of them. Carter carried 24 states, Reagan had 13 and Anderson 2. The other 11 states were divided.
There were a few curious twists to the voting. The new Democratic congressman from North Dakota voted for Reagan, largely because the Californian had carried the state 2-1. The two young Republican congressmen from Maine voted for Anderson, not Reagan. All told, 13 House members voted for Anderson. Rep. Paul Findley from Illinois, a maverick Republican, voted for Anderson and thereby deprived Regan of a majority in that state.
Late this afternoon, the Senate, on the first ballot, elected Mondale vice president. The vote, 53-47, followed strict party lines except that Harry Byrd Jr. from Virginia, who is technically an independent but who gets his committee assignments from the Democrats, voted for Baker. January 7
I met a different Jimmy Carter at breakfast this morning. Gone was the broad smile and the small talk. He looked tired and worn and the folds in his neck hung loosely above his shirt collar.
His pitch was short and direct: "Yesterday's votes illustrate the obvious. Neither Reagan nor Anderson have a ghost of a chance of being elected in the House. I need your vote, and I realize it won't come up cheap. What do you want?"
"Mr President," I said, "there is nothing that you can give me. I just don't think you have been a very good president. And I can't believe that your second term would be any better, especially if you're elected this way."
The conversation ended with the president saying that "some unexpected problems have come up with the Women's Commission. My staff made a small mistake -- there is no vacancy after all." January 12
The House has now cast 37 ballots and there have only been minor changes in the voting. The North Dakota congressman's law partner is now a federal judge and that state is now firmly with Carter. Paul Findley is now voting for Reagan and that keeps him at 13 states. January 16
I just got an hysterical phone call from Becky's father, Ralph. He runs a small computer firm in Montpelier and his largest contract is with the Social Security Administration for data processing. He has just gotten a letter, signed by some deputy assistant secretary, terminating the contract for "inadequate compliance with the interface module."
It's clearly political, but I don't know what to do about it. When I told Sen. Pat Leahy, he suggested that I call the vice president. On the phone, Monale seemed to be in awfully good spirits. "Dick, you don't have a thing to worry about," he said. "Tell your father-in-law that if he can hang on for four more days, he'll have all the government computer work he can handle."
Five more ballots today. No change. January 17
Becky has been a tower of strength. Last night she took me out to Lion d'Or, a real fancy French restaurant, as a surprise present "for being the bravest man and the best husband in the world." January 20
Inauguration Day and the cold rain is just pouring down. The House took a final ballot this morning, the 57th, and the results were the same as always: Carter 25 states, Reagan 13, Anderson 2 and 10 divided.
Given the circumstances, the Inaugural balls and the parade have been cancelled. Becky and I were planning to watch the swearing-in of Mondale on television. But as the House was adjourning, I got a message from Mondale asking if I would ride with him from the vice presidential residence to the Capitol.
Mondale was in a jaunty mood and extremely friendly, even though I had single-handedly stopped his boss from being reelected.
"Dick," he said, "you've got guts. I admire that in a man. I just want to know, Dick, that you have a friend in the president -- ah, ah -- I mean the vice president." Epilogue
Walter Mondale served out his full four years as our first acting president. He kept most of the Carter Cabinet, except that John Anderson became attorney general. Mondale governed very cautiously, conferring with the House leadership before making any major decisions or appointments. He threatened to use his power only once, but dropped that idea when Tip O'Neill reminded him that the House could always bring Jimmy Carter back.
Dick and Betty Walker thrived in Washington. He regained his seat on the Ways and Means Committee and grew increasingly popular through his sponsorship of tax credits for the purchase of backpacks and hiking boots. Becky Walker became special assistant to the acting president for women's issues.
Dick Walker never talked much about the strange election of 1980. Asked at parties exactly how Mondale became acting President, he only would say, "The Constitution works in strange and mysterious ways."