Since his death December 3, former Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois has been lionized in the national press as one of the last politically influential liberal Republicans.
The white-haired Anderson's quixotic bid for his party's nomination in 1980 has been the topic of numerous articles and televised panels — as has his subsequent run as an Independent that fall against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter (in which he ended up with 6.6 percent of the vote).
"My fellow Anderson freaks," is how he opened speeches to loud laughter, the speaker and audience knowing well that he was setting himself apart from most politicians by saying precisely what he believed in: a mild form of gun registration (which prompted boos from the GOP's powerful gun-owning membership), a grain embargo on the Soviet Union following its seizure of Afghanistan (anathema to the farm lobby), and support for environmental protection measures that just didn't resonate in a Republican Party that was increasingly conservative.
Anderson, who was 95 at the time of his death, ended his public career as president of the World Federalists. For most of the elections after that in which he ran, he supported Democrats for President — from Walter Mondale in 1984 to Barack Obama in 2008.
But there is another part of John B. Anderson's career as remarkable as his run for president: how he went from being one of the most conservative Republicans in the House to his better-known niche as a liberal "rock star."
In Anderson's first term as U.S. Representative (1961-63), the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action (ACA) gave him a 95 percent rating and a rating of 88 percent for his first six years in office.
In contrast, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) gave him a big fat zero for his first term. The legislation Anderson voted against included Medicare, federal aid to education, food stamps, air pollution controls and national health insurance. He supported the House Committee on Un-American Activities and, on three occasions, Anderson proposed a constitutional amendment to characterize America as "devoutly recognizing the authority of Jesus Christ, Savior and ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God."
"John B. was conservative, all right, and the church community liked him," the Rev. Don Lyon, pastor emeritus of the Rockford Faith Center, told Newsmax, "But in the '60s, he changed. Like a lot of ambitious Republicans, he wanted The Washington Post and The New York Times to like him. And, he wanted the money of the Rockefellers behind him. So he moved liberal."
(Lyon made a spirited primary challenge from the right to Anderson in 1978 and drew a never-expected 47 percent of the vote against the veteran incumbent. Two years later, Anderson announced he was leaving Congress to run for president.)
Others who worked closely with Anderson point to other, more principled reasons for his shift in politics.
Don Manzullo, a strong conservative who represented Anderson's old northwestern Illinois district from 1992-2012, considers the late congressman his mentor and hero.
"I worked for John B. from 1964-67," Manzullo told us. "He made it possible for me to pay for my education at American University. I ran the copying machine in his office, did research for him, wrote letters for him, and got him coffee. I'm thankful to him for so much."
Manzullo believes the rise of the civil rights movement had a profound effect on his boss. In 1968, a year of tremendous upheaval in the black communities, Congress was debating an open-housing bill, which would have penalized landlords who refused to rent to people on the basis of race, color or creed. Republicans had historically opposed such legislation on the grounds that it violated the right of contract and Anderson himself had voted against a similar measure.
"He was on the Rules Committee and under a lot of pressure to vote against bringing open housing to the House floor," said Manzullo. "But he was very touched by the plight of black Americans facing discrimination. At one point, he read a letter from a black husband and wife in Rockford who were teachers and had answered more than 100 advertisements for an apartment. They were turned away from all. That really moved him."
On April 9, 1968, the Rules Committee voted eight-to-seven to send open housing to the House floor. Anderson cast the deciding vote. Later, following a powerful oration by the Illinoisan, it passed the full House by 18 votes.
Marc Rosenberg, who worked for him on the Republican Conference in the '70s, thinks the Republican move toward the right in those days made Anderson stand out more as a liberal.
"Anderson was pretty much a classic Midwestern Republican moderate – fiscally conservative, somewhat libertarian, and open-minded about civil rights," he said. "After my stint at the House Republican Conference, I went on to work for [0hio Republican Reps.] Chuck Mosher and Chuck Whalen, who also fit that model. When each retired, in '76 and '78 respectively, they were replaced by Democrats. And the center of gravity in the Republican caucus shifted a bit more to the right."
Anderson himself once spoke to me about his shift in politics. When I reminded him in 2001 that he cast the deciding vote for conservative Rep. Bob Dole, R.-Kan., to be president of their freshman Republican class in the House over moderate Rep. Clark McGregor, R.-Minn., Anderson replied, "You're right. I did. And look, Dole's not as conservative as he was and neither am I!"
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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