Don't Forget the 1980 Draft Jack Kemp for Vice President Effort

(In 1980, many conservatives thought Jack Kemp would be the perfect vice presidential running mate for Ronald Reagan and set out to bring that about. After Jack’s death, Human Events asked Jim Roberts, who had worked closely with Jack in those years, to tell our readers the inside story of that campaign. Here is his report.)

For two years (1984-1986) Jack Kemp was my boss. The first year I served as director of his political action committee, the Campaign for Prosperity, the second as director of his foundation, The Fund for an American Renaissance. The two jobs offered me the opportunity to work closely with this giant of modern American politics and I retain a reservoir of great memories of those years.

My most enjoyable Kemp-related experience, however, was one ironically in which I had no contact with him at all — with one exception.

In February of 1980, conservative fundraiser and activist (and long-time friend) Bruce Eberle called me with an intriguing proposal. Knowing that I was a fellow Kemp fan, Bruce wanted to know whether I would serve as co-chairman and executive director of a Draft Kemp for Vice President effort.

Having just sent a book manuscript I had been working on (The Conservative Decade) to the publisher and, needing something to do, I readily agreed. I set up shop in Bruce’s offices and a wild ride began.

We formed a committee and sent out an invitation letter to leading Republican elected officials. Most declined to enlist (many of the moderates were for George H.W. Bush, many of the conservatives for Sen. Paul Laxalt.), but some did. Then-congressmen Trent Lott and Connie Mack and Iowa Lt. Gov. Terry Brandstad stand out.

Despite the opposition of the Reagan campaign’s high command to our efforts, we persisted and soon had members, many of them delegates, from most states.

We held a national meeting in Chicago. Press releases and polls were distributed, and mailings to delegates sent out. Eberle Company direct-mail letters raised much of the funding to sustain the effort and Bruce made up the difference. We were obviously striking a chord with the GOP base and the press was intrigued.

Jack himself was deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, he would have loved to have been on the ticket with Ronald Reagan. On the other, he was taking heat from many in the Reagan campaign who accused him of orchestrating the effort.

Learning that we planned to hold a press conference in the Rayburn House Office Building, in which his office was located, he sent a staffer to the event who asked me to come by to see the congressman. Entering the office I was confronted with a stern-faced Congressman Kemp who said, “You and your red-haired friend [Bruce Eberle] have got to put a stop to this. Paul Laxalt [chairman of the Reagan campaign] would like to cut my b…. off. He thinks I’m behind this thing and he’s furious.”  

I said, “Jack, I respect your opinion, but unfortunately you don’t have the call on this because we think it’s the right thing to do and it really is an independent effort.” We ended the meeting without agreeing on anything and I left.  

We just went on as before. We had an electorate of one: Ronald Reagan. We knew that the delegates would fall in line behind whomever he selected as a running mate, but we wanted to demonstrate that: 1) Kemp would engender more enthusiasm in the party, 2) that his appeal extended to non-GOP constituencies such as blue-collar workers and minorities and 3) the Reagan legacy was at stake. Kemp was the man to secure it for the next generation.

As the GOP convention approached, we made plans to have a major presence in Detroit. We rented a storefront headquarters in the downtown area and dispatched interns to drive two trucks with office supplies and 5,000 placards to Motown, arriving three days before the convention began.

Kemp was Delegates’ Favorite

Upon our arrival, Bruce and I held a press conference at which we officially opened the headquarters, which promptly became a beehive of activity, drawing hundreds of volunteers who carried away Kemp for Vice-President materials to be passed out in the convention area.

We held daily press briefings and organized hundreds of volunteers to distribute literature and put on rallies. One of my most vivid memories is of Rep. Trent Lott giving pro-Kemp speeches on the steps of the convention hall.  

It quickly became apparent that Kemp was the favorite of the delegates. The first day at the headquarters we invited the delegates and alternates to a draft-Kemp reception in the main ballroom at a hotel near the convention center.

Following the adjournment of the convention that afternoon, we were hit by an avalanche of people trying to get into the ballroom in anticipation that Kemp would make an appearance (He didn’t). The tidal wave of thousands of people engulfed the hotel, prompting the fire marshal to scream at Bruce Eberle, “Get these people out of here now!” “Good luck,” Bruce replied.  

Bruce was an alternate delegate from Virginia and was incensed when Virginia GOP Gov. John Dalton said publicly that the Old Dominion delegation was solidly pro-Bush. Bruce demanded that the delegation be polled. A polling took place, televised by the media. The result: Kemp 70% Bush 30%.  

Kemp was slated to address the convention on the second night, but we had a big problem: We wanted to hold a major demonstration for him, but the convention officials refused us permission to bring in placards or any other materials.

Fortunately, we had the unofficial cooperation of the Young Republican National Federation and the College Republicans, both strongly pro-Kemp. Many of these young conservatives were volunteers on the convention staff and had access to the convention floor. They arranged to have 5,000 placards cleared for delivery into the convention center and pre-positioned on the floor and in the galleries. Before Kemp’s speech they distributed the placards to eager delegates and alternates and to spectators in the stands.

Word of the planned demonstration reached the media and Bruce Eberle was interviewed on the convention floor by Garrick Utley of CBS, who asked what to expect. Bruce predicted a huge outpouring of support. He was proved correct. When Kemp stepped to the podium he was met by a tumultuous reception that seemed to go on forever.  

Jack gave a great speech and got another enthusiastic reception at the end. As I said, he was clearly the delegates’ choice. Reagan recognized this when he invited both Kemp and Bush to join him for lunch — indicating that Jack was on the short list. But the fix was unfortunately in for Bush.

Following the merciful collapse of the shockingly reckless talks that were held with Gerald Ford’s representatives about Ford’s becoming Reagan’s running mate (a move that would have destroyed Reagan’s candidacy), Reagan gave Bush the nod because he wanted a moderate to unify the party.

Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. Kemp went on to run a brief, lackluster campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988 and was a part of the ill-fated Dole ticket in 1992.

But though Jack Kemp never made it to the White House, he had an impact on American political history equaled by few others — including some occupants of the Oval Office.

When it was all over, Jack thanked me profusely, claiming that the Draft Kemp effort had “put him on the map.”

It hadn’t of course. He was already on the map, thanks to his years of barnstorming around the country for GOP candidates, his optimistic and compelling personality and his eloquent advocacy of a pro-growth economic agenda.

I told Jack (who could be a demanding and sometimes exasperating taskmaster) that I had enjoyed the experience so much because I “was able to work for him without having to work with him.” In fact, I added, “it was the most fun I’ve ever had in politics or ever expect to have.

That’s not the way I feel today, of course. Rather, I feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss of a great political leader whose like we will not soon see again.