Throughout his long career in government - - as an often feisty Republican congressman from Rockport, Ill., and later, as an independent presidential candidate in 1980 -- John B. Anderson has tended to fill his niche in public affairs according to the stirrings of a very private political conscience.
In 1980, Mr. Anderson rightly recognized that although not tapped by his party as the GOP standard-bearer, he could still play an important role as a prod -- a candidate of ideas -- to the two ''establishment'' candidates, Jimmy Carter, then President, and Ronald Reagan.
Now, in announcing that he will not mount an independent presidential bid in 1984, Mr. Anderson is bowing to the reality that he does not really have a niche to fill in this particular election setting. That is not to say that Anderson will not be heard from again -- either regarding issues, or possibly as a candidate for future high office. But as he surely recognizes, in a large sense the Democratic Party this year has already produced two new candidates that are running as alternatives to the establishment; namely, Gart Hart and Jesse Jackson. Both Democrats have mounted campaign bids from outside the power center of their party.
By stepping out this year -- although stressing that he will work to build up his National Unity Party for a major presidential effort in 1988 -- Anderson leaves the way open for what promises to be a clear election this fall between the two major party candidates.
That appears even more likely, what with the recent accord between Mr. Jackson and top Democratic officials.
Had Anderson run, his impact would most likely have been similar to what happened four years ago -- garnering more votes from Democrats than Republicans. Even without a third-party bid by Anderson, the Democrats have a tough road ahead of them. Party leaders recognize that the key to their election hopes will be a big turnout, since newer voters tend to vote Democratic. An Anderson try would have made it all the harder to attract those new voters.
None of this, however, detracts one iota from Mr. Anderson's achievements in the 1980 election -- or his possible contribution in the years ahead.
In 1980 Anderson captured 5.7 million votes -- 7 percent of the total vote cast.
He did that by exhibiting qualities of good humor, satire, and intellectual freshness that brought a sense of proportion to the entire election. Given such qualities, it would seem only natural that Anderson will continue to play an important role in the American political process.