The slender, white-haired, distinguished gentleman applauding loudly for Ronald Reagan had been a formidable rival of both Reagan and Jimmy Carter only a few months ago.
The voice of Mr. Reagan was coming into a Washington ballroom via phone from Camp David. And the recent adversary of Mr. Reagan, sitting at a small table in the ballroom, was John Anderson, now a public speaker and TV commentator in Chicago.
This Monitor reporter, sitting next to Mr. Anderson, asked, as the meal was being served: "Were you disappointed that your vote dwindled down to under 7 percent --when at one point it appeared it might be 20 percent or higher?"
"No," said the former Illinois congressman. "Not at all. I don't know how many people I've talked to who said that up until the moment they went into the voting booth they were agonizing over whether or not to vote for me."
Mr. Anderson is convinced that the "agonized" voting bloc was particularly large last fall -- made up of voters who really would have liked to vote for him but who, in the end, more often than not decided to vote for either Reagan or Carter lest they waste their votes.
Actually, Mr. Anderson's impressions were corroborated by the findings of both reporters and pollsters who talked to voters just before and immediately after the election. The "agonized" voting was considerable, certainly more than enough to hearten this independent candidate who put up such a valiant fight. Would it be, perhaps, enough to encourage him to try again?
Mr. Anderson had been critical of both Carter and Reagan during the campaign --but he had seemed to direct the brunt of his criticism toward the GOP candidate. "What have you against Ronald Reagan becoming president?" this same reporter once asked the independent presidential contender. His answer:
"Personally I think he is one of the most affable, charming men on the American political scene. I do fear he is a man who, because of his age, because of his experience, because of his basic philosophy, is simply not attuned to the future."
But now at the banquet Mr. Anderson was applauding President Reagan. However , it was clear that the unrestrained Anderson appreciation was being expressed for a wounded President and the pluck he had shown. At no point was he conceding that his earlier evaluation of Mr. Reagan had changed.
Mr. Anderson as a candidate had also been critical of President Carter. He called him a "good, decent, honest, moralistic" person but with "an inability to put policy above politics." "Awfully good at politics but terrible, I think, at charting with any vision and then pursuing with any consistency any long-term policy goals."
But the perception of most observers was that Anderson was more concerned about Reagan becoming president than about Carter remaining one.
Asked by a reporter during the campaign, "Will you feel comfortable if you wake up the day after the election and find that your presence on the ticket has been the "difference" in defeating Carter and electing Reagan?" Mr. Anderson had replied:
"Of course. Because the American people
"Of course. Because the American people will have made the choice in the polling booth. But what would really make me sorry would be to wake up on the morning of the 5th of November and find out Mr. Reagan was elected and I hadn't even been on the ballot, and people might have had another choice and another result might have been effected."
So now, at the banquet table, this reporter asked the question he had been wanting to ask for a long time: "Poll findings differ on this. So I'm asking you this -- which candidate did your presence on the ticket hurt the more, Reagan or Carter?" Mr. Anderson replied that he thought it had hurt Carter a little more than it did Reagan.
The final election results were these: Reagan, 50.7 percent, Carter 41.0, Anderson, 6.6, Clark 1.1, Commoner, .3, Others .3. So, obviously, if all of Mr. Anderson's vote had gone to Carter he would not have won. Therefore, Mr. Anderson doesn't have to take either the blame or the credit for Reagan beating Carter -- at least statistically.
Yet Mr. Anderson may wonder, privately of course, whether the way Democratic liberals, particularly Kennedy supporters, rallied to his side may not have put an unbearable burden on the Carter candidacy.
Will John Anderson try it again? Anderson laughed at the question. "What I intend to do is to go to the podium right this minute and make my announcement," he quipped. Then, seriously, he said that he saw "no reason" why he shouldn't get back into politics again. By that he seemed to mean that he might run for Congress again, or some other office, including the presidency.
People kept coming up and shaking Mr. Anderson's hand, asking for autographs. The moment, of course, belonged to the popular President. But the personable, articulate Mr . Anderson obviously still had a loyal following.