There has been much press coverage these days about the problems of the Republican Party seeking a new identity that resonates with Americans. Too often Republicans and conservatives seem to lack compassion and concern for many social issues of interests to too many Americans. In the 1960s Conservatives had little involvement in the historic battle for civil rights. Many Republicans opposed the civil rights act in 1964 and a great deal of resentment grew within the African American community over this apparent indifference.
It was of course Republicans with President Lincoln that led the battle to end slavery and liberate blacks from the intolerable practice. Thirty-two years earlier, William Wilberforce, a noted Member of Parliament and British Christian leader, had led the battle to end slavery in England. Unfortunately during the last half of the 20th century too many conservatives, Republicans specifically, were uninvolved in the battle. That disinterest was tied not to bigotry but rather other priorities, including a major battle to oppose the spread of Communism from the Soviet Union and “Red China.”
It was a warm summer day during the 1996 campaign that the National Association of Black Journalists held its annual convention in Nashville. The organization, like most journalism groups, invites presidential candidates to address its members. On that humid Tennessee day Republican Presidential Candidate Robert Dole and Vice Presidential Candidate Jack Kemp were slated to speak to several thousand African-American journalists from around the nation. Most Republicans would have described this group as anything but a friendly organization to GOP candidates.
Senator Dole was introduced with polite applause. Then Jack Kemp was introduced and he received a standing ovation. I sat in awe as these black American applauded a Republican leader. Jack stayed after his speech and shook the hand of every young journalist who wanted to meet him. There was no story about this incident and it has received no notice that I have ever seen. Why did Jack get this reception? It is easy to understand why — Jack Kemp cared and he demonstrated that care over a lifetime. He was committed to the wisdom of a free market but he also saw that sometimes people fell through the cracks and that government has the responsibility to help people.
Jack was committed to giving people opportunity, not handouts. He had the strong respect of millions of Americans. In my many personal conversations with Jack and my work with him, that caring attitude came through like a laser beam! Jack in the past decade spoke strongly for a guest worker program for illegal immigrants and a method for these folks to become legal residents of the United States. Jack saw these people as hard workers who were trying to achieve the American dream, one sought by millions from throughout the world.
Jack observed one time, “Republicans many times can’t get the words ‘equality of opportunity’ out of their mouths. Their lips do not form that way.” He also declared, “There really has not been a strong Republican message to either the poor or the African American community at large.”
He also noted, “When people lack jobs, opportunity, and ownership of property they have little or no stake in their in their communities.”
In 1964 Senator Barry Goldwater was defeated for the presidency. Look magazine shortly after the solid defeat asked writer Richard Cornuelle to write a piece entitled “A Positive Agenda for the Republican Party.” In 1965, Cornuelle published a new book, Reclaiming the American Dream. Cornuelle, like Jack Kemp, called on Republicans to have answers and a positive agenda instead of constant opposition to government. He coined the phrase “the independent section,” which described the vital role that associations, churches, and individuals play in meeting the needs of society.
Unfortunately, Dick Cornuelle like Jack Kemp were not seen as providing direction for the future of the Republican Party. Jack Kemp was a dynamic individual who, like Ronald Reagan, always saw a glass half-full rather than half-empty. If the Republican Party is to begin carrying a positive banner of hope and leadership, it will need the likes of Jack Kemp. Perhaps with the loss of Jack Kemp, the time has come for the Party and Conservatives in general to reexamine their priorities and reach out to all Americans.
Indeed it is a time for all Americans to rekindle their faith in an America of strong commitment to a free market system which strives to reach all Americans, not with hand out by with a hand up. Kemp reminded us, “There are no limits to our future if we don’t put limits on our people.”
At the same time, Jack never lost his commitment to the idea is that growing economy is the only answer to enriching more Americans instead of fewer. He saw redistribution of wealth as a policy for failure. His vision for government was simple: “Every time in this century we’ve lowered the tax rates across the board, on employment, on saving, investment and risk-taking in this economy, revenues went up, not down.” It was interesting that another dynamic leader in the Democratic Party held that same view, John F. Kennedy, another inspirational leader.
Finally, as the Republican Party thinks about is future and the Democrats, now in power, contemplate how to responsibly use their power, we should remember Jack Kemps words “Democracy without morality is impossible.” I, like so many others Americans of all colors and all parties, will miss Jack Kemp.