Upon learning of Jack Kemp’s death Saturday at 73, there was so much to say about the Buffalo Bills football great and New York congressman that it was difficult to keep any reminiscence brief. As quarterback, president of his players association, congressman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and vice presidential nominee, Kemp seemingly lived several lives in one brief lifetime.
What frequently stunned people upon learning it was that, while the father of the concept of tax cuts (now universally identified with the modern Republican Party) and a leading GOP voice for free trade zones, Kemp was self-taught in the area of economics.
Having majored in physical education at California’s Occidental College, the Buffalo Bills great read the works of Milton Friedman and von Hayek between games. In Congress, he honed his pro-free market views through long discourse with economists such as Arthur Laffer (whose famous “Laffer curve” on tax cuts was pivotal to the tax cuts Kemp first championed in the 1990’s.)
And as he moved into the House Republican leadership as chairman of the GOP Conference in the 1980’s, the New Yorker expanded his portfolio. He quickly became a leader on defense issues and help quarterback the Coalition for Peace Through Strength among pro-defense lawmakers. As always, he was positive and never unkind to those who disagreed with him and instead championed the nuclear freeze. Kemp seemed to speaking to his critics when he began a “Peace Through Strength” rally by saying “Welcome to the peace movement–the real peace movement.”
With the same zeal he showed as captain of the Bills when they went to the championship in 1965, Kemp motivated people. Fellow Republican Bill Paxon, who succeed Kemp in his Buffalo-area U.S. House and went on to chair the National Republican Congressional Committee, called his onetime football hero his political mentor. Saul Anuzis, who became state Republican chairman of Michigan, helped run Kemp’s presidential effort in 1988 and called himself “a Kemp-Gingrich” Republican when he sought the Republican National Chairmanship last year.
Perhaps the most significant figure Kemp influenced was Ronald Reagan. As co-sponsor of the Kemp-Roth tax reduction measure of 1978, the New Yorker was advocating tax cuts at a time when many conservatives (including Reagan) believe in paying off deficits before cutting taxes. But Kemp, along with Sen. William Roth (R.-Del.), carefully demonstrated that cutting taxes helped stimulate business, create new jobs, and resulted in more revenue to retire government-accrued debt.
Reagan, for whom Kemp once worked as an intern when he played for the San Diego Chargers, agreed. The concept of Kemp-Roth was incorporated in President Reagan’s 1981 tax cut.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Jack Kemp’s efforts to expand the Republican base to minorities made him controversial with some on the right. Quite a few Republicans felt he was “selling out” principle when he offered defenses of affirmative action and oversaw the growth of the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development while HUD secretary (he came right after Reagan’s HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce had seen the department’s budget cut by two-thirds over the previous eight years).
Kemp, who had fought discrimination in professional football, felt strongly about what he believed in and pursued it with typical enthusiasm. In a spot considered a political graveyard, the New Yorker became one of the most visible of Cabinet Members under George H.W. Bush and, after Bush lost the White House in 1992, polls widely showed Kemp the top choice of Republicans for President in ’96.
But it was not to be. As it was throughout his career in national politics, the opponent Kemp never seemed to tackle was bad timing.
If Only His Timing Was Better. . . .
Whether it was tax cuts, national defense, or his incessant outreach to minorities (which he stepped up as secretary of housing and urban development), Kemp always had ideas. As to why he never went all the way to the White House, the answer is in two words: bad timing.
How many times did I hear my editors shake their heads and say “When is Jack going to run for governor?” or “Why doesn’t he take on [New York’s liberal GOP Sen.] Jacob Javits?” In attempting to run for President in 1988 as a House Member, Kemp–albeit a national political figure–was nonetheless cursed by the same demon that had downed a score of would-be presidents from the House of Representatives: it just isn’t a big enough base with which to go national, and no sitting House Member has gone directly to the White House since James Garfield in 1880.
Kemp was better-than-even money to take out New York’s Democratic Gov. Hugh Carey in 1978 (who made it to a second term over a far weaker Republican). In 1980, he almost certainly would have beaten Javits in the GOP primary and won the Senate seat in the fall (the then-little known county official Al D’Amato did precisely that). In either office, Kemp would have been inarguably the leading opponent to Vice President George H.W. Bush for the 1988 presidential nomination to succeed Ronald Reagan. Had he not stopped Bush, Kemp might have made a better case to be his running mate.
But he didn’t and, when he finally made it on a national ticket eight years later, time had passed both presidential nominee Bob Dole and Kemp. He passed on a run for the job job himself in ’96 and proclaimed that he was “in the wilderness.” For the first time since he came to Congress in 1970, Kemp in ’96 would not have a speaking role at a national convention.
Dole, who had disparaged supply siders such as Kemp, suddenly turned to “that quarterback” on the convention eve and asked that he become his running mate. The match briefly excited conservatives who had been skeptical of Dole. But it was the wrong year and so much that the two Republicans had disagreed over–ranging from tax cuts to ending affirmative action (which clashed with Kemp’s view of reaching out to minorities)–was played up in the liberal media. Kemp himself was faulted by conservatives who said he pulled punches in his lone televised debate with Al Gore.
The Dole-Kemp ticket lost by a decisive margin to Clinton-Gore. He went back to the wilderness.
Ironically, Kemp’s start in politics was a case of great timing. Republican National Chairman Ray Bliss, sat in his office, chain-smoked, read business and sports sections of local newspapers in congressional districts he felt his party could win. For years, Bliss tried to recruit quarterback-turned-sports commentator Kemp to run for the seat of Rep. Richard “Max” McCarthy (D-NY). Kemp resisted, but when McCarthy finally left the seat to run for the Senate in 1970, he gave in, ran, and won the Buffalo-area seat (albeit narrowly).
Bliss knew that Kemp had been 1) a football star 2) well-known and 3) that he was a Republican who had interned for California Gov. Reagan while playing for the San Diego chargers. That was all he needed to know to shout “Go, Jack, Go.”
Perhaps Bliss’s present day successor as national chairman, Michael Steele, might be advised to read similar parts of local papers and look for more Jack Kemps. The Republican Party would be a better place–and might win more.