National Catholic Register


A Reagan Aide-Turned-Knight

His years in White House were 'partially successful'

BY Jim Malerba

June 6-12, 1999 Issue | Posted 6/6/99 at 2:00 PM


He has played a leading role in the White House under President Reagan, served as a legal adviser to the U.S. secretary of health and human services and as assistant for pro-life issues to Sen. Jesse Helms. He is also a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Pontifical Academy for Life, as well as supreme secretary of the Knights of Columbus. He spoke recently with Register correspondent Jim Malerba.

Malerba: How did you become so deeply active in pro-life activities?

Anderson: My wife and I were active in the pro-life movement when we were students at Seattle University, and that continued after we were married and while I was a law student. After I passed the bar exam, we moved to Washington, D.C., where my first job was working as a legislative assistant for pro-life issues for Sen. Jesse Helms. For the next five years, I spent most of my time promoting pro-life legislation in the Congress. At that time, Sen. Helms was the sponsor of the Human Life Amendment and the Senate sponsor of the Hyde Amendment.

Did that lead to your positions in the White House?

Yes. I joined the Reagan administration in 1981, working at the Department of Health and Human Services. There, I became involved in the “Baby Doe” infanticide controversy. Then, in 1983, I joined the White House domestic policy staff and participated in the development of President Reagan's initiatives involving pro-family and pro-life policies.

What was the Baby Doe controversy?

In the early '80s, there were news reports of mentally handicapped newborn babies being allowed to die from correctable life-threatening defects because doctors or parents did not want to care for a mentally handicapped child. The terrible thing was that if these children were not mentally handicapped, they would have routinely received life-saving surgery. Clearly, these children were being discriminated against because of their handicap, and President Reagan directed that strong action be taken to protect their civil rights.

Were you and the president successful?

Well, like most things in politics, we were partially successful. The president's initial efforts were challenged in federal court by doctors claiming a privacy right similar to the abortion privacy right. We then came back with a different approach involving federal legislation that gave new authority to child protection agencies to step in to help these children. Although we didn't get everything we wanted, in the long run I believe we saved the lives of many children and changed the attitudes of many in the medical profession. But it's an issue that still requires careful monitoring. We all need to do more to assure that the dignity of the handicapped is respected.

Weren't you also involved in world population issues?

I was, beginning in 1983, when I became a member of the White House policy staff and got involved working on the administration's position for the upcoming U.N. conference on population development in Mexico City in 1984. Basically, what the policy said was that an organization that was performing or promoting abortion overseas would not be able to receive assistance from the United States. Aid also would be cut off to countries practicing abortion as a means of population control. The current administration, unfortunately, has reversed that policy. So now there's activity in Congress each year to restore these protections.

Where did you go after that?

In 1985, I went to work in the Public Liaison Office to head up the section on domestic policy issues, which involved many of the same issues confronting the president's policy staff. Then, in 1987, I resigned from that position and opened up the Public Policy for the Knights of Columbus in Washington, D.C. I had joined the Knights in 1985. Also in 1987, we opened in Washington the first campus outside the Vatican of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

What mission did the Knights charge you with?

Primarily, this new initiative was aimed at enhancing the role of the Knights of Columbus in the pro-life effort. At the White House, we were interested in promoting grass-roots solutions to local problems. We were committed to reducing the role of government and promoting greater private-sector involvement. The Knights of Columbus has had a history of doing precisely this type of work in our communities for more than a century. So, when the supreme Knight, Virgil Dechant, asked whether I would be interested in working for the Knights in this regard, it was tremendously appealing to me. Here was an organization that was strongly dedicated to the pro-life cause and, at the same time, was providing millions of dollars to local charitable projects.

At that time, were the Knights gaining or losing members?

We were gaining new members, and we're continuing to do so each year. There was a downturn in membership in the '60s, when there was a big cultural and social shift, and also controversies that arose from Vatican II. I'd like to point out that as of April, there are 1.6 million members and we're pushing toward 2 million in a few years. Their average age is 39, which is remarkable. We now have 11,300 active councils worldwide. And last year, we provided $107 million in charitable giving, and more than 50 million hours of voluntary service to communities.

Is the insurance business of the Knights growing, as well?

Very definitely. We have the highest rating from Standard & Poor's and others. When you look at the number of insurance agencies doing business in the nation, we're right up there at the top. But it's more than just an economic enterprise. The Knights of Columbus is — in everything it does, including insurance — a very serious and successful attempt to put into practice the social and economic teachings of the Church.

Let's talk about your being appointed to the Pontifical Academy.

Actually, there are three pontifical academies, in science, social sciences and life. I serve on the Academy for Life, which has a little over 40 experts in the various areas affecting pro-life issues. We meet once a year at the Vatican with the Pope to discuss these issues. In February, we met to discuss the issue of dying and the end of life.

The Pontifical Academy for Life is relatively new, isn't it?

Yes, that's right. It was founded by John Paul II in 1994. You might consider it to be one of the many structures this Pope has established to aid the Church in its pastoral mission. In addition to the Academy for Life, he has established the Pontifical Council for the Family and the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, to name just two. This is all part of a magnificent development during his pontificate to build the foundation for great things for the Church in the new millennium. Pope Paul VI was a very holy man, yet sadly by the end of his pontificate you might say the papacy was besieged. But during the time of John Paul II's pontificate, there has been an extraordinary change. This Pope is regarded as the world's great moral leader. Even secular magazines such as Time name him “Man of the Year.” And when he visits a country, he is welcomed by millions cheering him asa sign of hope.

Many of those cheering people are young. What is your reaction to the serious problems they face in today's society?

Part of what's happening is the great conflict between what the Holy Father calls the culture of life and the culture of death. Our youth are caught right in the middle of it. Younger people see a profound crisis in our culture. A lot of teenagers were not surprised by what happened in Littleton, Colo. That fact alone should be a wake-up call to the rest of us. Almost through osmosis, they understand how bad the situation is, more so than adults. At the same time, they see in the Holy Father a Christian witness that is responding to the cultural crisis. This is particularly true of the tremendous response to the Holy Father during the World Youth Days. In many cases, these teen-agers can't articulate the reasons for their response, but they testify to the fact that this Christian witness really resonates with them.

It's quite a turnabout from the thinking of young people of the '60s, isn't it?

Oh, I think that's absolutely true. The '60s, the so-called Age of Aquarius, with all its panaceas, were supposed to solve our social problems. However well-intentioned they were, they solved very little. Some social problems have gotten much, much worse. I think young people see this more than adults.

Another thing, this culture in large measure is now living without the former Christian values we once had. We have moved those values so far from the mainstream that we are now facing the stark reality of living in a society that has abandoned God. What happened at Columbine High School cannot be separated from this reality.

So, how do we keep reaching out to young people, and others?

It's urgent that movements like the Knights of Columbus continue to focus on young people, offering them both programs and mentors. In addition, the Knights of Columbus continues to promote a Marian-based spirituality for families, and a wholesome environment for our member families. We must reclaim the culture, one family at a time. Christian organizations in concert with the Church have a vital role in this. During the '70s, it was popular to talk about the evangelization of culture. Today, you have to evangelize the culture, working through families and within parishes and Catholic organizations. We also have to face the reality that there are many children who are spiritual orphans. Somehow, we have to find a greater role for social institutions to court even more spiritual and moral influence in our communities.

Have the moral and ethical examples set by you and your wife positively influenced your children?

As a parent, you always hope so. Dorian and I try to live our lives according to the values we espouse. No one is perfect, but I hope the work we're involved in to promote pro-life and the family, and respect for people regardless of their differences, sends our children the right message. You have to teach by example, and I think that's how the family really teaches. That is how my parents taught me. All I really learned about commitment and integrity in dealing with others I learned through my father's example. His example was always to do what you believe to be right, without fear of the consequences. This is what you really want to teach your children, and today, for a Christian, it is one of the most important things.

What do we need to do to reawaken the moral conscience of ournation?

That's an excellent question, and central to everything we've been talking about. The Holy Father writes about the eclipse of moral responsibility. The first thing in terms of reawakening the moral conscience is connecting it to reason, so we understand there is an objective right and wrong. A moral conscience is a conscience educated in the truth. Second, we must emphasize the dignity of the person. All these great crises, whether it's abortion or Littleton, Colo., or racial discrimination, or Kosovo, arise from a disregard for the dignity of the person. These crises all have to do with the lack of moral conscience and moral responsibility. In government, we can stop trying to always put the right spin on issues. Politics has become the arena of the spin master.

Instead, politics should be the arena of truth. Real leadership is leadership committed to the truth. Too often, that is lacking at the highest levels of government. We should insist it be returned to its rightful place.

Jim Malerba