Jack Kemp passed away in 2009. He left quite a legacy.
I did not know Kemp when he was in Congress, but I can recite his biography by memory: Occidental College; a look see or two in the NFL pre-1960; signed by the Los Angeles, later San Diego, Chargers in the American Football League (AFL); did well with them, injured, waived and claimed by the Buffalo Bills; success with the Bills including back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965; injuries leading eventually to the end of his playing career.
A short digression. My first involvement with politics was as a college student working for then Democratic Congressman Max McCarthy. Max had a very successful three-term career in the House, beginning in 1965. He was a very dedicated congressman; he led the charge about the handling of chemical and biological weapons; wrote a book about it. But then Max decided to take a shot at the United States Senate seat that Robert Kennedy had before his assassination in 1968. Nelson Rockefeller had appointed Charles Goodell to the seat. Max lost the Senate primary and his House seat was left open.
The Democrats in 1970 nominated attorney Thomas Flaherty to run for that House seat. Max tried to get back on the ballot but was unsuccessful. The Republican candidate was retired football player Jack Kemp. If McCarthy had stayed with his House seat rather than run for the Senate, Kemp probably would not have been elected.
Kemp won that first election by a small margin, but after that re-elections came easy. Not one to sit on the (back)bench, Kemp started aggressively pushing for tax cuts. He helped set the direction of the Republican Party on that issue and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan took up the cause. Kemp ran unsuccessfully for president in 1988 but George H.W. Bush appointed him as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In 1996 he was chosen for vice president on Bob Dole’s ticket. That ended the formal parts of Kemp’s political life. He continued to work through his foundation on issues he believed in.
The other side of the Kemp-Reagan tax cuts, of course, was their “deficits do not matter” approach to the federal budget, which of course was followed by the “deficits are destroying the country” approach. The country is still working its way through that issue.
The football and political biographical notes do not do justice to the type of man Kemp was. He referred to himself as a “bleeding heart conservative.” He looked to cut taxes to stimulate economic growth. The value of doing that can be debated. But unlike a lot of conservatives, Kemp understood that economic growth means a lot more if all Americans have a chance to benefit.
Kemp the football player was not shy about his commitment to equality of the races, and at a time when such things were in a great deal of flux he was not afraid to speak out. When the AFL decided to hold their all-star game in New Orleans and black members of the all-star teams were not allowed to enter certain businesses in the city, black players boycotted and Kemp was with them. The game was moved to Houston.
Kemp was also an organizer of the AFL Players Association. He had much more respect for and understanding of unions than most of his Republican colleagues did.
As a member of Congress and as HUD Secretary, Kemp promoted inclusiveness and opportunities for everyone. In 1994 he fought the Republican governor of California, Pete Wilson, who was pushing an anti-immigrant ballot proposition (and Kemp was still chosen as the Republican VP candidate two years later). His positions were out of step with many in the Republican Party even then, but that didn’t bother him. He pressed on.
Today’s Republican Party
It isn’t so long ago that Jack Kemp was an active player in American politics, but things have changed considerably since his time. Kemp stood for inclusion and for helping those who need a hand-up. While there have been some attempts by Jeb Bush and John Kasich to stake out a more moderate and inclusive tone, the Republican Party of 2015 generally does not fit with the approach that Kemp took.
Leading Republican presidential candidates this year not only openly demonstrate their bigotry, they seem to revel in it. Donald Trump can belittle Mexicans and attack prisoners of war. Ben Carson suggested that Muslins have no place in American political life. Those are the two current leaders in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal have all thrown a lot of mud around.
So here is my informed-only-by-observation take on where Jack Kemp would be today: incredibly concerned, disturbed about such developments and willing to challenge such stuff.
There is a new book out about Kemp, his political philosophy and style of operating (Jack Kemp: The Bleeding Heart Conservative Who Changed America; Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes; Sentinel). Kondracke had a book signing at the First Niagara Center on Monday. Long-time Kemp associate Russ Gugino organized the event.
The authors of the book, in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, suggest that Kemp would not been in sync with what is happening now. They note that Kemp “shook things up – but with dramatic ideas about policy, not by pitting outsiders against insiders.”
“What Republicans need today, following the Kemp model, is big ideas, not demagoguery. They ought to be debating the best way to restore growth, prosperity and hope – what voters care about most – not insulting one another over appearances and poll standings.”
Gugino related a story to me about one of Kemp’s last appearances on Fox News’ Sean Hannity program. Hannity kept baiting Kemp to get into a discussion about Barack Obama’s history with Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright. Russ told me that Kemp shut Hannity off, telling him that the only thing he wanted to discuss was Obama’s policies, not his personal history. How many Republican presidential candidates today would challenge Hannity that way?
The current turmoil in the House of Representatives has Republicans in and outside of the House pushing hard for Congressman Paul Ryan to become Speaker. Ryan was a protégé of Kemp. Ryan has already said no twice, but there is a lot of pressure being brought to bear on him. Being the Speaker of the House requires someone to compromise, work across the aisle, to understand the need and value of giving all Americans the opportunity to succeed. Far right conservatives are already taking shots at what Ryan has done or stands for. He is very conservative, but probably not conservative enough for the Freedom Caucus. You have to wonder – Ryan has to wonder – if resolving the important issues of the day with the current make-up of the House caucus is even possible at this point in time.