Late last night I settled into my hotel room here in our nation’s capital and as I’m strolling through the channels I learned the sad news: A man who spent so many years working in this city – for the betterment of our nation — had passed.
Jack Kemp’s enthusiasm was infectious. His enthusiasm wasn’t just for his party and its policies – an area where he sometimes differed with the GOP. Jack Kemp was a man enthusiastic about America and, more importantly, he was a man enthusiastic about people.
Jack Kemp was All-American. Blessed with good looks and tremendous athletic ability, Kemp spent ten years as quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers twice leading his teams to AFL championships. He parlayed his celebrity into a political career by serving a decade and a half as U.S. Congressman from western New York.
Kemp was not the stereotypical jock trying to find a place to settle in and ride out his career. He was a key player in the U.S. House of Representatives to advance the Reagan Revolution of the early ‘80’s. An ardent advocate of Supply-Side Economics, Kemp believed by freeing up restrictions on the market (e.g. lowering taxes) all people would benefit which was in the JFK philosophy that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Public policy experts and historians will debate where Supply-Side Economics went wrong. Certainly if government hadn’t overspent the increased revenue it actually received as a result of SSE we wouldn’t have had the deficits we had from that era. (For a better understanding, read David Stockman’s Triumph of Politics.)
Secondly, Kemp genuinely believed that by freeing up the market all areas of the private sector would reinvest in people and provide opportunity to those on the margins of the economy. As we know, that wasn’t always the case. Not everyone in the private sector recognizes – as they should — that with liberty comes responsibility. (John Paul II, Centessimus Annus)
But Kemp never stopped in his effort to promote liberty and an ownership culture…for everybody. This was evidenced during his tenure as Secretary for Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush, but was ultimately formed during his professional football career as we became a more racially integrated society.
He was a self-professed “Bleeding Heart Conservative” which generated so much enthusiasm for people like me and my political peers during his Presidential candidacy in 1988. Like Kemp, we believed in limited government, respect for life in all its forms (not just for the unborn), a strong defense as a deterrent, and opportunity for all.
Jack Kemp was a person, who in the words of his good friend Bill Bennett, “led the party to the inner-city….He wanted to take the party to everybody.” That did not always earn him praise from party-insiders who sometimes found it to be a political waste of time.
When candidate George W. Bush declared himself a “Compassionate Conservative,” many Kemp supporters such as I thought we finally had our guy. Sadly we all know how that story turned out.
This weekend leaders of the Republican Party are on retreat in Virginia searching for its soul as they undergo their own public “Extreme Makeover.” Perhaps it would behoove the GOP to finally listen to what Jack Kemp had been saying…and to whom he was speaking.
Kemp was never afraid to engage anybody because he believed dialogue was healthy. One of the things I admired so much about him was the project he had recently undertaken with another former Vice Presidential candidate, Senator John Edwards. These two men – of largely differing political views — toured the nation conducting forums on the issue of poverty.
Jack Kemp believed we can have differing political views; however, we should never let them blind us to our common goal as Americans, as evidenced in his Poverty Forums with Senator Edwards.
I shall miss the gravelly-voiced enthusiasm that Jack Kemp brought to the political arena. But I am hopeful we are entering a new political era that is less about bluster and demagoguery and is more characterized by constructive dialogue and a fearless discussion of ideas.
Jack Kemp was probably a man ahead of his time. He was certainly a man ahead of his party.
Thank you for your service to our country and for your love of people, Jack. God bless you. You will be missed.
NOTES: Deepest condolences to Jack’s wife, Joanne, his children Jeffrey, Jennifer, Judith, Jimmy, and his 17 grandchildren. For a glimpse into the character of Jack Kemp, please take a look at this open letter he sent to his grandchildren last November: