Jack Kemp was, in the words of Hendrik Hertzberg of the liberal flagship the New Republic, “a species of miracle I don’t pretend to understand.”
Well, conservatives of my age understood Kemp very well, in the very marrow of our bones, but even for us he seemed a species of miracle. Nobody this side of Ronald Reagan ever inspired us so, and nobody then alive (i.e., nobody short of James Madison) so shaped our thinking. Nobody, not even Reagan himself, infused our cause with such infectious energy as Kemp did. And nobody did more to make clear that conservative ideals, if rightly enunciated and understood, are aimed at serving not a narrow slice of the public but the whole electorate, including the poor, the black, the Hispanic, the day laborers, and the low-income workers striving for a better life.
For years I kept a huge file labeled simply “Kemp” that moved with me from job to job. It was filled with written copies of Kemp’s speeches, articles about Kemp, list of policy proposals by Kemp — and even a lengthy letter from me to Kemp in late February of 1992, never mailed (political developments overtook it before I actually sent it), outlining in great detail a strategy for him to gently shove then-President GHW Bush aside and wrest the Republican nomination from both Bush and challenger Pat Buchanan. (Kemp rejected similar entreaties that year from numerous people who actually had the political “stroke” to help back it up.)
There was, of course, no similar “Dole” file or “Quayle” file or “Lott” file or even a “Gingrich” file.
And I was far from alone in my enthusiasm. Young conservatives from the late 1970s through the early 1990s had no doubt, none at all, that Kemp was — philosophically and attitudinally — Reagan’s obvious heir. It wasn’t just that Kemp (way back in the fall of 1976) had been the first one to sell Reagan on supply-side economics. It was that in his views on the Cold War, on the sanctity of life, on the eradication of poverty, and of America’s greatness and exceptionalism and unlimited future, Kemp and Reagan were on the same page — and Kemp had an ability to sell those views to communities that sometimes would not listen to Reagan at all.
Sure, Reagan’s diaries showed that he felt Kemp could be a real annoyance at times. And that was fine: Kemp could annoy almost everybody. Even his public failings, and they were significant, were the failings of a great man and a great spirit — somebody too enthused about admirable ideals for his own good. He had a need to be the center of attention. He had a nervous energy about him that could be off-putting. He often spoke at too great a length, turning meetings into his own personal filibusters. He could get way too preachy and, especially after 1992, too apt to insinuate that his listeners were less morally or philosophically enlightened than he. When he was the Republican nominee for vice president in 1996, for instance, he did his ticket no favors by doing things like going into private, big-donor meetings at Georgia country clubs and hectoring them about their collective racial insensitivity or even outright racism.
But Kemp’s lack of discretion about causing needless offense also manifested itself in a willingness to dare giving offense for purposes both worthwhile and timely. At the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, for example — the one caricatured by the establishment media as being filled with fear and hate — he had the almost impish gall to tell the assembled delegates that history is “on the side of those liberal democratic ideals which gave birth to our nation.” Of course, conservative ideals are indeed “liberal” and (broadly speaking) “democratic,” at least in the classical sense of the words. But to use those words approvingly at a conservative Republican convention was to risk being terribly misunderstood and even unpopular. Only Kemp could get away with such a bold — and appropriate — turn of phrase.
By that speech’s end, though, he was using “liberal” and “Democrat” in their modern political senses: “My fellow Americans, the liberal Democrats just don’t get it. They don’t understand that you can’t create more employees without first creating more employers, that you can’t have capitalism without capital, and we can’t expect people to defend property rights when they’re denied access to property.”
Good stuff, that.
In the same speech, he fought the dominant media narrative that Soviet Communism just faded out of existence of its own accord. “Communism didn’t fall,” Kemp insisted. “It was pushed. It was our ideas that did the pushing.”
And that is what Jack Kemp was, more than anything else: a pusher of ideas. Urban homesteading. Enterprise zones. Tenant management of public housing. Capital gains tax cuts. Welfare reform based on work incentives and incentives for families to stay together. Housing tax credits. Escrow savings accounts. Housing vouchers and portable rent subsidies. “Weed and Seed.” School choice. Health savings accounts. Across-the-board tax cuts. Rollback of Communism — including particular Kemp leadership against Communists in Latin America. (Kemp once cleverly described his and Reagan’s approach as “‘supply-side’ foreign policy: the liberation of Grenada, the Strategic Defense Initiative and support for the Contras in Nicaragua.”)
Mostly, though, Kemp was dedicated to creating more wealth not due to love of lucre but for the right reasons. He was fond of noting that free-market progenitor Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy. And, in a 1985 speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he explained what economics had to do with moral concerns:
[Our] vision relies on free enterprise because of the possibilities for fulfillment that it opens for ourselves and our children. American has always been the one place on Earth where you could climb as high or as far as your efforts and God-given talent could take you. To be sure, this is not the only aspect, or even the most important aspect, of life, because man does not live by bread alone. But he does not live without it. Material prosperity frees us to turn our attention to higher things. Opportunity means more than individual self-fulfillment: not just good work, but also good works. Wages and the saving of wages are not just the means of amassing personal comforts. They mean being able to meet your obligations to our family, provide your children with hope for a better life, and pass on the fullness of life to others. They mean better homes — and better family life. Better schools — and better education. Loving your neighborhood — and loving your neighbor.
Jack Kemp, with his unmatched generosity of spirit, loved his neighbors more thoroughly and palpably than almost any public figure of recent generations. And he did it with a deep [Presbyterian] faith in higher things. Saturday night, his family put out this statement:
Jack Kemp passed away peacefully shortly after 6 o’clock this evening, surrounded by the love of his family and pastor, and believing with Isaiah, “My strength and my courage is the Lord.”
For nearly 74 years, the Lord blessed us all with the life of Jack Kemp — a man whose own strength and courage must have pleased the Lord he loved.