An American Renaissance Man

On Saturday evening, the physical life of Jack Kemp came to an end, but his contributions to American political and intellectual life have never been more timely. An advocate of a strong economy, missile defense, and broadening the base of the Republican Party by including minorities, Kemp’s past may prove the conservative movement’s prologue. A man as forward-looking as Kemp would appreciate that.

Jack French Kemp, 73, died May 2, 2009, after a short but intense fight with cancer. Born in California on July 13, 1935, Kemp learned his first lessons about America’s entrepreneurial spirit by watching his father work long hours to transform a small message service into his own trucking company, which went on to employ many others (including the younger Kemp). In their rare moments of leisure, Paul R. Kemp would take his son to sports events – and Kemp learned from that experience, too. Obsessed with football at an early age – he wrote an essay on the forward pass as one of the great inventions of human history for a school assignment – he honed his skills to the point that his forward pass looked like Baryshnikov’s pirouette. He deployed it to great effect at Occidental College, where he met and later married the love of his life, Joanne, with whom he would have four children, two of whom would become accomplished football players themselves.

Quarterback Kemp became a natural for the pro leagues. After being drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1957, he burnished his lifelong optimism by being cut from a string of NFL teams. “We all encouraged him to get on with his life,” confessed brother Tom, “but he kept knocking around the NFL.” After a brief stay in the Canadian Football League’s Calgary franchise, he made his way to the AFL’s Buffalo Bills, where his football accomplishments placed him among the greats of his day:

Kemp led Buffalo to the 1964 and 1965 AFL Championships, and won the league’s most valuable player award in 1965. He co-founded the AFL Players Association in 1964 and was elected president of the union for five terms. When he retired from football in 1969, Kemp had enough support in blue-collar Buffalo and its suburbs to win an open congressional seat. In 11 seasons, he sustained a dozen concussions, two broken ankles and a crushed hand — which Kemp insisted a doctor permanently set in a passing position so that he could continue to play.

Not all his activity was on the field. Kemp developed a voracious appetite for education, especially the development of ideas, which he found he had neglected at Occidental. He soon found new coaches named Goldwater and von Hayek. During the off-season, he campaigned for Republican candidates, and in the summer of 1967, he served as an assistant to one of the aides to California’s conservative governor, Ronald Reagan – service that would later unfairly tarnish his image. With some experience in politics, he realized he could be as accomplished in that realm as football, which he quit at the start of the next decade. (Kemp later remarked, “Some people think I quit playing a few years earlier, but I retired in 1970.”) A year later, his battleground was the U.S. Capitol.

The Beginning of an American Renaissance

Kemp came to the first of his nine terms in the House of Representatives in 1971 as a Republican from Buffalo. The football fan then in the White House took note of his fellow Californian, but the brooding and defensive Richard Nixon was the polar opposite of Kemp economically and temperamentally. Kemp grew in stature and influence, in part by his forceful and seemingly perpetual involvement in political debates before organizations like the American Enterprise Institute. In his speeches during the conservative political wilderness of the 1970s, the former jock who came late to education – now Jimmy Carter’s prime elected foe – became known as one of the most fearless, eloquent, thoughtful, and polysyllabic defenders of free enterprise and strong defense.

During the malaise of the Carter years, Kemp penned his 1978 conservative manifesto, An American Renaissance: A Strategy for the 1980s. As an early disciple of economic Arthur Laffer, Kemp presented a unified vision of supply side economics. While low taxes net low government revenues, at a certain point, higher taxes also produce lower yields by discouraging entrepreneurship and retarding economic growth. He aimed to unleash the power of America’s creative spirit, which he viewed as much a fundamental human right as good economic policy. And his optimism knew no bounds. Having observed his father’s rise, he came to conclude (as he once told Maureen Dowd), “There’s no limit to what free men and free women in a free market with free enterprise can accomplish when people are free to follow their dream.”

He also viewed access to capital as the best form of civil rights, which he firmly supported from his earliest years and was strengthened during his years in professional sports. (As some would later note, “The huddle knows no color.”) In An American Renaissance, he wrote, not of ending welfare for inner city blacks. “Instead, we must draw people out of the net by expanding attractive opportunities in the private sector.” The promise of the Declaration, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Dr. King’s march, he often said, would not be fulfilled until more minorities knew the experience of first earning a paycheck, and then issuing one.

His small book not only set out Kemp’s unique brand of progressive conservatism – tax cuts, deregulation, strong defense, energy independence; but also civil rights, minority outreach, and a continuing place for the welfare state – but he proved no mean prophet about the shape of the political future. He wrote:

There is a tidal wave coming equivalent to the one that hit in 1932, when an era of Republican dominance gave way to the New Deal. It’s going to happen and happen soon, and we’ll find millions upon millions of Americans of every racial and cultural background surprising themselves by voting Republican. (Emphasis in original.)

What he predicted, he helped bring to pass. An early disciple of economic Arthur Laffer, Kemp became an economic mentor to his old idol, Ronald Reagan. Reagan, whose 1976 economic platform consisted of ideas Kemp dismissed as old guard GOP “austerity,” learned from the New York Congressman the power of supply-side economics. Kemp pressed the Gipper to adopt this as his 1980 economic program as only Kemp could – eloquently, forcefully, and unrelentingly.

And it worked.

The cornerstone of candidate Reagan’s economic plan, the 30 percent across-the-board cut in taxes, was formally known as The Kemp-Roth Act (or more formally, the “Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981”). Reaganomics could have easily been called Kemponomics. The rapid passage of this bill, with Reagan’s deregulatory policies, led to 92 months of unbroken economic growth.

Kemp, who (with Paul Laxalt) had been a conservative favorite for vice president in 1980, had blossomed into the conservative to watch. Magazines compared Kemp to John F. Kennedy – though the quarterback would have recoiled at the idea of a touch football game. A handsome, eloquent, intellectual exponent of conservatism, he led the way in public debate and fought valiantly for the Reagan agenda in the House. No one during the era, aside from perhaps Laxalt, more deserved the mantle of “Heir to Reagan.”

However, Jack Kemp’s conservatism was not that of the rest of his party, indeed even of other conservatives. Kemp supported sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa. Although he paid lip service to balancing the budget, he viewed debt aversion as part of the old Republican mindset – one he believed not merely misguided but politically suicidal. He shared little of President Reagan’s desire to cut federal programs not related to the economy. He wrote in 1976, “Because I do not advocate ripping away the safety net of government support services, I am sometimes accused of not wanting to reduce excessive government expenditures. The accusation is misplaced.” Misplaced or not, his advice was heeded – and the 1990s orgy of spending, the crushing weight of unreformed entitlements, and an ever-mounting debt helped sink the Republican Party more than any supposed “backlash” against Iraq.

Those problems, however, were in the future. The GOP’s JFK decided to take a stab at running for the nation’s highest office. It is only fair to say his 1988 presidential campaign went…badly. His attempt to compete as an equal to George H.W. Bush and Senate Leader Bob Dole in the earliest races – in which he jogged across Iowa – faltered miserably. Although conservatives in his campaign, and rival Pat Robertson (with whom Kemp had a brief, formal campaign alliance) would charge a conspiracy to torpedo Kemp’s candidacy, Jack had significant flaws. Campaign manager Ed Rollins would confess, “Jack was a totally unmanageable candidate. We’re dear friends today, but he was a total pain in the ass in that campaign.” A man of tremendous passion, he expounded on his economic beliefs – endlessly. He could speak relentlessly about monetary devaluation, deflation, IMF policy, and tax rate indexing, matching his arcane subject matter with a vocabulary only William F. Buckley Jr. could understand. He frequently went off-script, ignoring the sound bites his campaign handlers had sprinkled in for media consumption. It did not help that Kemp attempted to move from the House to the White House, a move not made since James Garfield. Had he pursued the governorship of New York, he may have enhanced his prospects for the presidency and spared the world Mario Cuomo.

His supporters elicited more memorable quotations than Kemp – from his competitors. In New Hampshire, a Kemp supporter flustered Bob Dole until the Kansan blurted out, “Get back in your cave,” in front of waiting television cameras.

Kemp’s 1988 campaign was also dogged by scurrilous rumors that followed him for 20 years that he was a homosexual. During his summer 1967 stint as an aide to Governor Reagan, his boss had been a homosexual who, with a group of others, was summarily fired. Kemp later invested in a property with his old boss, and the property had been the scene of homosexual activity. Although Kemp had never set foot in the property, media outlets tarred him by association. The late Drew Pearson made a veiled reference in his column to an “athlete,” but for the next two decades Kemp would be questioned on the matter by Esquire, Vanity Fair, Newsweek (in the person of Howard Fineman), CBS, and the “Today” Show. The Evans-Novak Report launched an investigation before reporting, “the rumor comes as close to being disprovable as any personal slander ever is.” In fact, in 1987, Kemp opposed allowing homosexuals to teach in public schools. Yet for some, the rumor has survived.

Kemp brushed aside rumors in favor of intellectual combat. Though Kemp was perceived as winning many debates, including a memorable 1987 Houston roundtable hosted by Buckley, he never convinced his own party that he was Reagan’s rightful heir, rather than Reagan’s sitting vice president.

Indeed, he could not convince that sitting vice president to choose him as vice president. In the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, many waved signs reading “Bush-Kemp ’88.” However, media outlets report Kemp blew his chance to become Bush’s veep during a 1988 dinner. While Poppy focused on the externals of Kemp’s coming endorsement, Kemp pressed the future “41” on his stance on taxes and the Strategic Defense Initiative, and found him wanting. One observer stated, “He found out that Bush knew nothing about it.” Counseling Bush as he did Reagan on tax cuts eight years earlier flustered Bush. (A Bush aide said Kemp was “all over” him, and “Bush likes a little room.” He sighed, “With Kemp, everything is issues.”) Hearing media reports, Kemp said, “I heard I had overpushed on SDI.” But he was apparently unmoved. One adviser said, “Kemp may have lost his chance of being vice president in the process, but he didn’t care. He got his ideas across.” And that was his primary goal.

Instead of VP, Kemp accepted a position as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, which Bush offered in part to stave off fears of a 1992 primary challenge. There, Kemp championed his outreach to minorities. He favored giving excluded Americans access to capital by creating what he first called “Empowerment Zones” and later “enterprise zones”: low-tax, low-regulation areas that would attract businesses to the inner city. Today, the federal government fosters 50 such zones. During the 1992 L.A. Riots, Kemp was dispatched to calm the scene, telling local youth, “I’m a homeboy.”

After Bush broke his “No New Taxes” pledge, Kemp again figured prominently for vice president, both for Bush (some had mounted a “Dump Quayle” effort) and Ross Perot (Ed Rollins briefly served as a key adviser to Perot ’92). Out of power during the Clinton years, Kemp co-founded a think tank to promote his brand of “progressive conservatism,” along with William Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Vin Weber. Empower America had a lasting impact until its merger with Citizens for a Sound Economy years later.

In 1996, the vice presidency again came knocking. After William Bennett declined to run as Bob Dole’s running mate, he suggested Jack Kemp. The two 1988 rivals made an odd pairing, but for a brief moment the disaster that was the 1996 Dole campaign looked to have a flicker of hope. Unfortunately, Kemp had not materially improved as a campaigner by 1996. He noted in his disastrous debate with Al Gore, “I can’t clear my throat in 90 seconds.” When Gore insulted Kemp’s party as a group of racists, of which Kemp was apparently the lone exception, Kemp thanked him heartily. A questionable campaigner (Kemp) matched with a terrible campaigner (Dole, in ’96 anyway) led to an electoral blowout.

Kemp hardly retired into the wilderness following the loss. He remained one of his party’s most outspoken voices – though his voice increasingly opposed his party. He had already butted heads with most of his fellow Republicans in 1994 by opposing California’s ballot Proposition 187, a measure to stem the hemorrhaging costs of its welfare state by denying illegal immigrants non-emergency public benefits (i.e., welfare). That is, the measure codified the radical idea that state dollars should go only to state (not to mention American) citizens. It passed overwhelmingly, but Kemp feared it would alienate Hispanics from the Republican Party. He would later glow when John McCain reminded Republicans even illegal immigrants “are God’s children.”

Others of Kemp’s beliefs and actions troubled conservatives. In the late 1990s, he regularly advocated ending all economic sanctions against Iraq and North Korea. In 2005, when federal agents tied him to Samir Vincent, an unregistered lobbyist for the Iraqi government who was implicated in the Oil-for-Food scandal, many smelled a rat. Although he would co-found the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in 2001, Kemp developed a business relationship with Hugo Chavez in 2002. His lifelong commitment to civil rights included later advocacy of Affirmative Action. Other critics referred to his emphasis on economics as “Big rock candy mountain conservatism,” devoid of any abiding interest in the social issues they believed defined us as a people. Although Kemp spoke out against partial birth abortion and opposed abortion in most instances, he stated it was hardly a motivating issue of his. And he vigorously defended Democrat Barack Obama from charges of his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Yet Kemp greeted controversy as the price of speaking one’s mind.

Kemp was a rogue intellectual, a progressive conservative, an intellectual powerhouse, and an economic genius.

Jack Kemp’s 1970s ideological mantle is strangely contemporary. With a nascent administration socializing entire sectors of the private economy, attempting to solve an economic meltdown and an unemployment epidemic with his grandfather’s discredited statism, Republicans would do well to revive Kemp’s message of optimism, creativity, and the indomitable power of the American entrepreneurial spirit. The party casting about for its future may do well to look to a pillar of its past, whose message was ahead of its time.

Jack Kemp, RIP.

This article originally appeared as the lead story on Monday, May 4, 2009, on FrontPage Magazine.