This is the story of a man running for president -- a man who very likely will never be elected president -- and the way his candidacy is treated by the press, the public and the political community.
His name is John B. Anderson. For almost 20 years, he has represented the northwest corner of Illinois in the House of Representatives, rising to the third-ranking post in the Republican Party leadership there.
The public opinion polls say only a small fraction of the American people has ever heard of him. An even smaller fraction says it wants him to be the next president. The public opinion polls may be wrong, but Anderson doubts that they are.
Back in Washington, John Anderson is very well known.Handsome, bright, articulate, known around town as honest and outspoken, John Anderson has made news in the capital for years. Reporters, in fact, love him.
It started in 1968, when he bucked his party and voted to send an open housing bill to the House floor on the day they buried Martin Luther King Jr.
He continued to make news, mostly by declaring his independence from Republican Party, doctrine, and the more he did, the more his national reputation as a politician grew. Sometime in the last couple of years, John Anderson began to take that reputation seriously and decided to offer himself for the presidency. Now he has trouble getting any of those reporters to pay serious attention to him.
"I have wonderful clips," Anderson sys. The Des Moines Register called him "a silver-haired orator with a golden tongue, a 17-jewel mind and a brass backbone." The Wall Street Journal said he was "a loner, a thinker and probably the best orator in Congress."
But these nice stories always reach the same conclusion -- that he hasn't got a chance because he has declared his independence from GOP doctrine. Anderson is given the obligatory profile and then gets written off.
Many voters understand this game, as does Anderson. The candidate is standing in a cavernous room in the student center on the campus of Northwestern University. It is his last stop on a day of appearances around Chicago, and about 150 students have come out on a raw, damp night to hear him. One of them rises to ask a question. "Are you," he says to Anderson, "being treated fairly by the media?"
The candidate shrugs. "It isn't a question of whether I'm lesser known, he says. "I've rubbed shoulders with about every prominent columnist and journalist in Washington. But there are other candidates who are far better known who get more attention. To establish objective criteria for the coverage of campaigns is not something I'd like to do."
For a man who has enjoyed such favorable treatment by the press over the years, John Anderson is strangely unsophisticated about what propels newspapers and television networks. He is, perhaps, no more sophisticated about that than he is about campaign politics. What he is sophisticated about is issues. But issues don't seem to sell.
He is in a garish lounge at a hotel near Chicago's O'Hare Airport. His day has been by any objective measure only fair. Morning appearances in the suburbs, a desultory speech to a branch of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a dreadful interview (on the part of the interviewers) at WBBM radio, another interview with the political editor of a suburban newspaper chain, dinner at a North-western fraternity, the evening speech and a poorly attended reception at a NU dormitory. No big crowds, no big donations. No news.
As he relaxes over a Scotch and soda, he talks about his treatment by the press. "I really think it is fair that I don't get written about unless I can manage in the course of my campaign to say something distinctive. Otherwise I'm a Bush or a Baker.
"But if I'm saying something that is truly unique, if I project a different Republican voice, then that's news."
If that were the standard that determined whether Anderson's campaign got attention, then he'd have a busload of reporters with him at every stop.
He courts the black vote. "I don't know any other candidate who's talked to as many black groups as I have," he says. "I'm pledged to do more than Carter has to redress the balance."
He courts women. "I'm trying to convince women that I'm the best candidate on women's rights and freedom of choice [on abortion]. Who else has gone to New Hampshire to participate in a candlelight vigil in front of the Manchester Union Leader for freedom of choice?
I'm putting my body on the line for women."
There are more examples. He advocates a 50-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline to cut consumption and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. He calls it Anderson's 50-50 plan. With the money from the tax, he proposes to cut the Social Security payroll tax rate in half. He also says the world's industrialized nations should form an oil purchasing authority to bargain with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
He is the only Republican candidate actively calling for ratification of SALT II. He decries further increases in defense spending and opposes building the MX missile. He warns against relying too heavily on the China card in U.S. relations with that country and the Soviet Union.
He finds disturbing "the idolatrous worship of the Kissinger era" and says there is more to foreign policy than "this almost mechanistic view of the balance of power in the world."
He savages the leadership issue. "Leadership is suddenly a banner to be held aloft," he tells the students at Northwestern. "You aren't going to be able to elect any man who can solve all your problems. When are you and I going to look in the mirror and take some of the blame?"
But there is more to making news than being different, more to being elected president than taking stands on issues. Reporters covering politics still find Anderson one of the most interesting candidates, still respect his ideas and his ability to express them. But they are reluctant to look as if they are pushing his candidacy when the polls show that Anderson hasn't made a dent with the public. That is Anderson's Catch 22.
"I can make these piddly speeches and it's not going to get me anywhere," Anderson says. "I'm not stupid. This is a country of 230 million people. You've got to have what you say resonate. If you can have your ideas reported, that's the way to get votes. I just don't have enough days left to make speeches."
He is now relying on the trickle-down theory to get attention. "I had tremendous television coverage over the weekend in Chicago," he says. "But I felt it was almost a guilt complex on the part of the media for having given so much attention to Teddy Kennedy. I happened to be the only Republican in town -- the unwitting but grateful beneficiary. But I can't count on that every time i'm in town. I've got to have something to say.
"I don't kid myself. I make a lot of speeches that don't make news. But I made a speech at that cattle show in Maine. The national media was there. iI thought I made a significant speech, different than the others, in which I decried missile madness. Republicans aren't supposed to talk that way. But not a word of it appeared in print."
Instead, the story that made front pages everywhere was George Bush's upset victory over Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.) in a straw poll of delegates attending the gathering. Anderson, by the way, got just 6 votes, finishing last.
After 20 years in public office, Anderson can't bring himself to accept the fact that a film clip of him hailing a taxi while a limousine picks up Howard Baker gets more attention on the tube than a speech on the issues.
The effect of that treatment makes raising money next to impossible. Anderson has yet to qualify for federal matching funds, though he hopes to by the end of the month. "Ronald Reagan spent more money [roughly $400,000] televising his announcement speech than I've raised," he says.
It also means the public is less inclined to vote for Anderson, even if they agree with him on the issues. They don't want to waste their votes.
On the 80th floor of the Standard Oil Building at the edge of Chicago's Loop, a Republican lawyer listens intently as Anderson outlines his foreign policy proposals. He is asked if he would vote for the candidate.
"In the general election," he replies.
Why does Anderson put himself through all this, the lonely travel, the speeches to people who don't listen, the same questions over and over, the company of people he doesn't know and will never see again -- all for what even he recognizes is an all but hopeless cause?
One reason is that it beats staying in the House of Representatives, where Republican conservatives have so isolated Anderson that his daily life there is a struggle and he faces more primary fights, as he did in 1978. Anderson has said he will not run for reelection in the House, no matter what. But he admits he would have quit the House even if he hadn't run for president.
"After spending an adult life of unfulfilled dreams and promises, a man has to prove something to himself" he says as he finishes his Scotch. "Maybe I'm trying to sum it all up to convince myself that everything I've been doing makes sense."
And so his real motivation is simply explained. "I guess," says Anderson "I just want to get it all off my chest before I close up the books."