A bout with cancer hits a man who changed the world.
“When you tax something you get less of it, and when you reward something you get more of it.”
With that simple exhortation — and this is a man born to exhort — Jack Kemp changed his party, changed his country and, ultimately, changed the world.
He had some help, of course. Ronald Reagan, notably. Robert Bartley and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. The late Jude Wanniski, one-time member of the WSJ board and author of The Way the World Works. Arthur Laffer, he of the famous Laffer Curve. Others. A number of distinguished others.
Yet for an idea to revolutionize the way the world thinks and works, in the American system it helps if one holds elective or appointed office. Elected as a Congressman from the unlikely world-changing precincts of Buffalo, New York, where he had come to fame as the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, Kemp evolved into the enthusiastic godfather of what became known as “Reaganomics.” or, in its other, equally familiar designation, “supply-side” economics.
The announcement that Kemp is facing a fight with an as-yet undescribed cancer means only that cancer is in for a hell of a fight. The Kemp family has understandably and appropriately asked for its privacy to be respected. Also, the usual disclaimer here that, like a lot of fortunate young conservatives, I worked for Kemp, in my case as an aide in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But cancer or no cancer, it is past time to give Kemp his due for what can only be described as an extraordinary political career. One can only await a really good Robert Caro-size biography that sets down the particulars for history.
THOUSANDS OF MEN and women have served as members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate since the dawn of the Republic in 1789, with more still added to those numbers from state governors and Cabinet officials or military leaders. Most have transited across the national stage in anonymity, their impact as a footprint in a windblown desert. In every period of American history there have emerged powerful elected or appointed leaders, presidents of the United States included, whose influence derived solely from their position and vanished the instant they left it. There is a medium-sized list of those who emerged from the House, the Senate, the governors’ offices to run for president, falling back into the status of historical asterisks when defeated.
Yet there is another category, a much rarer group of Americans who, whether they tried for the presidency and failed (as did Kemp) or never tried at all, have left a lasting mark on America and sometimes the world as well. This group includes that famous trio of United States Senators from the early 19th century, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Webster and Clay fought ferociously to preserve the Union, Calhoun with equal fervor to make the claim for states’ rights. Added to that list would be Webster’s successor as Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, famous for his successful fights as a leader of the anti-slavery forces and his role in insisting on the civil rights of black Americans. Later in the 19th century Congressman William Jennings Bryan burst on the scene as a father of populism. Losing the presidency three times, he nevertheless championed causes like the graduated income tax and the popular election of senators, ideas now fact for decades. Bryan’s fellow Nebraskan George Norris fathered the Tennessee Valley Authority as a key figure in the early-20th century progressive movement, while Arizona’s Barry Goldwater would lose the presidency in a landslide even as he fathered the modern conservative movement, a movement whose early pioneers included Senator Robert Taft. This is not to exclude Americans holding appointive office like presidential loser William Seward, whose decision as Secretary of State to purchase Alaska was mocked by his contemporaries yet is the source of much satisfaction to latter-day Americans, whether they be enthusiasts for the environment, oil drilling — or, lately, Sarah Palin! So too is George C. Marshall an American icon, not just for his role as Army Chief of Staff in winning World War II but his creation of the Marshall Plan that came to the rescue of post-war Europe while laying the foundation for the democratic Western Europe of the last sixty-plus years.
Jack Kemp long ago earned his role in this American pantheon. He did not invent “supply-side” economics. Yet in a day and age when many members of Congress use their office for nothing grander than prying grandma’s Social Security check out of the federal morass and issuing a press release telling the world, Kemp, elected in 1970, set about an entirely different task. He began schooling himself, and eventually his party, about the difference between bread slicing and bread baking economics. As Bartley would later recount in his book The Seven Fat Years: And How To Do It Again, Kemp became the focus of a Washington group (paralleling Bartley’s in New York) that focused on the economic woes of the 1970s. What they were, how they got there, and, strikingly, what to actually do about them. Bartley says that Kemp “did bizarre things like sit down and read The General Theory.” This would be John Maynard Keynes’ less than scintillating tome The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, a basic economics text then and now if one wishes to call oneself a Keynesian. It is not to be confused with a romance novel.
With what Washington would eventually realize was the typical Kemp passion, Kemp took an idea about tax cuts and made of it a gospel. In legislative form it became what was called Kemp-Roth, named respectively after Kemp the House sponsor and Delaware GOP Senator William Roth, its Senate champion. At its core, the idea proposed to slash personal income tax rates — and cut them big time by 30 percent over three years. It was 1978, the middle of the Carter malaise years, and after what Bartley calls a “stormy debate” the bill failed in a conference committee. Kemp kept going. By 1980 he had convinced candidate Ronald Reagan, and the concept was written into the 1980 Republican platform. By August of 1981 President Ronald Reagan was signing Kemp’s cause into law. By 1983, the American economy had begun to shake off recession and, in a startling reversal, roared to life. The results were so powerful that Reagan later said France’s Socialist President François Mitterrand, Reagan’s guest at the 1983 Williamsburg G-7 Summit, wanted to know just exactly what went into America’s blossoming and quite vivid economic growth.
For Kemp, this was more than simply passing a piece of legislation. Supply-side represented a real threat to the core beliefs of an entire intellectual class, a class that then — as now — considers itself “enlightened.” Passing Congressman Kemp one day as he bounded (Kemp bounds, he doesn’t walk) up an escalator to a House office building from the Capitol subway, I watched him overtake a moderate Republican Congressman who clearly considered himself a member of this enlightened class, an affliction that, sad to say, is all too bipartisan. After a brief conversation that required Kemp to stand still, he clapped the moderate on the back and — with a smile, always with a smile — said: “You know what your problem is? You’re an elitist!” And bounded away as his target visibly fumed that someone would mistake his addiction to me-too liberalism as something other than being a champion of the average man.
LIKE A BRYAN or Webster or Goldwater, Kemp never did make that trip to the White House as the occupant of the presidency, although he was the second- half of the 1996 Dole ticket. But his lost presidential run in 1988 did land him in the unlikely spot of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. It was there that Reaganites huddled in what was generally viewed as one of the least important backwaters of the federal government, a place touched by scandal at that. Ignored by the powers of the Bush 41 administration, Kemp blew into this concrete box with the force of a category five hurricane. If you worked for him you were quickly a part of an ongoing tutorial — done under the guise of a “brown bag lunch” — that featured everything from Heritage Foundation policy wonks to Sir Martin Gilbert, the biographer of Winston Churchill, to Alex Kotlowitz, the author of There Are No Children Here. The last was a gripping tale of two boys growing up amid the abysmal failure of liberal urban policy, in this case Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes. Also up for discussion was Assets and the Poor, a book about the failures of the welfare system.
It wasn’t always tutorials, either. Kemp himself was not only out there in America’s inner cities inspecting the failures of urban liberalism, he made damn sure his staff got out there too. I remember one particular tour of the Ellen Wilson project in Washington — a serious disgrace surrounded in broad daylight by drug dealers that is, I believe, now gone. The entire department rocked, at times shell shocked, to Kemp’s preaching of the gospel of capitalism and tax cuts. It didn’t stop there, either. He was, he liked to crack, the only Housing Secretary with his own foreign policy, a small detail that used to drive the real State Department crazy.
And all the while, the gospel according to Reagan and Kemp, the gospel preached with equal fervor by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, began to roll across the planet. The Berlin Wall fell, and the principles Kemp had preached so tirelessly began flooding Eastern Europe. Last November, French President Sarkozy, whose country just held the presidency of the European Union, announced his intention to seek tax cuts. Just days ago German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reported to be pushing for tax cuts. In Poland, Leszek Balcerowicz, a former Polish minister of finance and president of the National Bank of Poland, said his countrymen had come to realize that “the more reforms you make away from socialism the better your economic growth is.” In Israel, the Jewish state supported by Kemp with the same passion he devoted to free market economics, free-marketer and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is positioning himself to continue bringing his free market principles back for another round as head of the Israeli government.
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