The year was 1988. Jack Kemp came to my hometown, Pensacola, Florida, where Navy pilots trained and the kids hung out at the beaches with the sugar white sand.
A friend and I were hooked on the old Crossfire with Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden/Michael Kinsley. We identified Kemp as the best hope to continue Reagan’s reign.
Kemp stopped at the airport just long enough to shake the hands (including mine which I considered not washing) and give a speech. I was one of a hundred or so who came out to see him that day. His prospects already looked shaky. He asked us, “Do you want me to give up?” We all shouted, “NO!”
There could probably be a great alternate history written with the premise of Kemp being elected that year.
He lost, of course, but went on to serve in Housing and Urban Development in the Bush administration. His many young fans held out hope his time would come. When Dole put him on the ticket as a running mate in 1996, it seemed like destiny for those of us who thought Kemp would rejuvenate the party. He would bring back Reaganomics. He would break the back of monolithic African-American support for Democrats and big government.
Instead, he lost the Vice-Presidential debate to Al Gore (truly performing with less verve than Dan Quayle in 1992, who BEAT Gore!) and the GOP ticket made way for Clinton’s second term.
After that, Kemp ceased to be the man many of us felt we were waiting for and the party has lacked a true iconic figure since that time. There was Reagan and then there was the one who would take up Reagan’s mantle. Kemp was supposed to be that man.
While Kemp failed to become the party’s leader (and, of course, the nation’s), his career was one of the most consequential in American politics in the second half of the twentieth century. Kemp was a winsome evangelist for the Reagan project in Congress when the need was great. He was part of a group that performed the near impossible in politics. They promised. They delivered.
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