Over at National Review the normally sensible Jay Nordlinger has for some undetermined reason abruptly gone off the rails.
In a piece nominally defending Mitt Romney -- “The Superb Mitt Romney” -- Nordlinger makes the case that Romney was a whole lot better than his post-election critics are suggesting.
Fair enough. While we were Romney critics in this corner during the primaries -- skeptical that yet another moderate Republican in the mold of McCain, Dole, Ford, Bush 43 in 1992 and on back to Dewey and Willkie etc. -- could win, Governor Romney did in fact have some good moments during the campaign. Two of them the selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate and his performance in that first debate with President Obama. As is true with presidents, history debates the performances, contributions and careers of losing presidential nominees forever -- William Jennings Bryan, Barry Goldwater, and George McGovern come to mind.
This applies to Romney as well. So Nordlinger’s defense of Romney was fine.
Abruptly, however, Nordlinger launches into a mind-boggling rant about the late Jack Kemp.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it needs be said that I -- like a lot of other people -- was enormously privileged to work for Kemp, in my case when he was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I also had the opportunity to work for Ronald Reagan, Kemp’s one-time boss (when the young Buffalo Bills quarterback did an off-season stint as a special assistant to then-Governor Reagan) and longtime political ally and friend.
Nordlinger starts off his anti-Kemp rant by saying that in “the first week of December, there was something called the Kemp Foundation Leadership Award Dinner.” Hmmm. Indeed. While I was invited but alas was unable to attend, this is becoming an annual feature for Kemp’s friends, family and former colleagues.
You can find the Kemp Foundation here and read about the dinner, which featured a former Kemp staffer by the name of Paul Ryan and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. The Foundation dinner, and indeed everything connected to it is about promoting Jack Kemp’s vision of “advancing the universal values of the American Idea of growth, freedom, democracy and hope.”
It was a vision that was famously shared with Kemp’s friend Ronald Reagan.
Around the time of this Kemp dinner, the refrain was, “Oh, Jack, oh, Kemp, where have you gone? We need you. Why can’t today’s Republican party be like Jack Kemp?”
Let me tell you something: There was a lot to admire about Jack Kemp. But he was also a flake. Or rather, he had a big ol’ streak of flakiness. His enthusiasms could be shallow and embarrassing. In the 1990s, he was complaining that the Clinton administration was being far too beastly to that misunderstood Saddam Hussein.
And he was not so hot a politician. Could he get elected dog-catcher, outside of Buffalo, where he had been a football hero? On the 1996 ticket, he proved maybe the worst candidate in memory. Bob Dole, at the top of the ticket, who everyone says was a lousy candidate, was much, much better than his running mate. Much.
Moreover, Kemp would never run for anything — anything besides president and vice president. He would never run for senator or governor. Would never challenge Moynihan or Cuomo. Would not stick his neck out in this way. He preferred to swan around Washington, being a celebrity and whatnot.
Fine — we all make choices. I’m not exactly setting the world on fire. But Kemp as our role model? In my view, the dumped-on Romney is much the more impressive man.”
Gee. Where to begin?
It takes nothing away from Mitt Romney to say that Jack Kemp was, as I noted here when Kemp’s fight with cancer was first announced, one of the most important figures in American history. If there is any doubt about this, all one has to do is look at the time and energy Barack Obama has devoted to repealing the Reagan/Kemp legacy of lower taxes, economic growth and freedom. Every last word uttered by the President along these lines is evidence all by itself of the impact Jack Kemp had in his public career. If Jack Kemp had not had that impact, it is certainly fair to say there would be no Barack Obama. One doesn’t get elected president and devote every minute of one’s agenda to undoing something that had no impact.
Jack Kemp was a member of the House. Congressmen have a hard time gaining traction in Washington unless they age into old bull status and become committee chairman. The number of people from the House who have made substantial, nation-changing, world-changing contributions in American history can be counted on one hand. In fact, the only other name that comes to mind is Congressman James Madison of Virginia, he who used his position in the House to sponsor the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
One could go on -- and if Jack Kemp were here he would go on. He won a fond nickname as the Republican Hubert Humphrey for his utter inability to say something in ten minutes when he could say it in sixty.
There’s no intention here to dump on Governor Romney. He is, as Nordlinger notes, “one of the brightest, most capable, most admirable men ever to run for president.”
But it is fair to say that thus far in his public life as governor and presidential nominee Romney isn’t even close to having the lasting impact Jack Kemp made in American history.
Jack Kemp -- and yes I confess to not just casting an eye to his actual and very considerable role in American history but to just plain missing an old boss who was nothing if not the personification of optimism, energy and the American “can do” spirit -- was everything a young American politician (and some old ones) could and should aspire to be.
He was, without ever laying claim to the Oval Office, America’s quarterback.
Oh that he were here today to carry the case against Barack Obama and his backward-looking, class-envying dreams of spreading poverty everywhere.
But, it wasn’t to be. Jack Kemp is gone.
While it may drive Jay Nordlinger crazy, the good news is that Jack’s spirit and example lives on. His friends and admirers, those who knew him and loved him and those who never knew him but understand in their bones what he was about, are still here -- and we all know what to do.
As the old quarterback’s friend President Reagan liked to say:
“It CAN be done.”