The Endlessness of Jack Kemp

Jack Kemp was a man of enthusiasms. He was passionate, erudite, articulate — and often endless.

Informed before the 1987 straw poll in Ames, Iowa, that he had to limit his remarks to 15 minutes, he complained: “It takes me an hour and a half to watch ’60 Minutes’!”

Yet his speeches had great energy even at great length, and when Bob Dole needed a running mate in 1996, energy is what got Kemp on the ticket.

I thought about this when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate last year. Just as Jack Kemp’s selection injected the Republican National Convention with an immediate boost of adrenaline in San Diego, so did Sarah Palin’s selection immediately lift spirits in St. Paul.

Both presidential candidates seemed a little tired and a little shopworn by the time they got to their conventions, both running mates were more appealing to certain parts of the party than was the nominee, and neither running mate was particularly happy or accomplished in his role as second banana.

For Dole and Kemp, it was a marriage made in hell. Dole believed in balanced budgets; Kemp believed in tax cuts. (They also did not like each other, Kemp having endorsed Steve Forbes in the primaries.) And Kemp’s debate performance — one of the few real jobs a vice presidential candidate has — against Al Gore was not good (and may have given Gore false confidence when he faced George W. Bush in their 2000 debates).

While Kemp once referred to himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative” — he was a proponent of immigration reform, tenant ownership of public housing and civil rights — he could also be a full-throated conservative on certain issues.

I first saw that side of him, along with his fervent speaking style, at an Iowans for Life convention at the Best Western Starlight Village in Des Moines in September 1987, when he was beginning his presidential campaign.

Kemp, wearing a red rose as an anti-abortion symbol, delivered his address full-blast. “We meet for one of the great events of the 20th century, the reversal of Roe v. Wade!” he shouted. “It won’t be a month before that Supreme Court has a pro-family, pro-life justice in Robert Bork! He’s gonna win! He’s gonna win! I’m a little bit disappointed that the White House is trying to sell him as a moderate. He’s a conservative! What’s wrong with that? We want conservatives! I will appoint pro-life, pro-family, pro-Judeo-Christian judges to all courts if I am elected president!”

He never got close to getting elected president or even to the Republican nomination. After serving 18 years in the House of Representatives, he became President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of housing and urban development, where Kemp approached the job, according to Jason DeParle, writing in The New York Times Magazine, “with an odd set of outside talents and peculiarities. Kemp brought unusual devotion and eloquence to his crusade. But he also brought a grab bag of marginal ideas and a personal style that alienated some of the allies he most needed. Chief among them was George Bush.”

Kemp often could not help himself, which he admitted. “Talking once about how he planned to seek better relations with Sen. Barbara Mikulski,” DeParle wrote, “Kemp leaned back and stuck a finger down his throat, as if gagging on the very thought. ‘I mean, my body language is worse than anybody else’s, you know,’ Kemp said. ‘I can’t hide my feelings.'”

An inability to hide one’s feelings is often a hindrance in politics, and so it was for Jack Kemp. But he died still true to his feelings on Saturday at age 73, a man of his enthusiasms to the end.