When word came of his death, I was literally planning the particulars of a trip to Washington for the inaugural conference of Pepperdine University’s Jack F. Kemp Institute for Political Economy. Jack’s papers will be there, and a chair in his name dedicated to the teaching of economics. This is good.
Much has been said since his passing, but more needs saying, or underscoring.
Kemp was the kind of person politics wants more of, the kind who remind us that it is a great profession, that at its best it is a calling, an actual vocation. We all know politicians who are cynical, and whose interaction with the public leaves them convinced them of their superiority. Kemp was the opposite. As his son Jimmy said this week, “My father didn’t think people were the problem but the solution.” He believed people had talent, dynamism, brilliance and hunger, and a good government was one that did not thwart but helped them, through sound policy, to become what God built them to be. “He wanted to unleash.” His trust in the people left him able to be daring. When he helped lift the American economy back in the 1970s and ‘80s, the old quarterback was throwing long. It is sentimental to put it this way but also true that the American people caught the ball, and crossed the end zone with it.
Jack knew how to lead. He spoke of ideas with affability and authenticity. He wasn’t angry and dark and simmering, didn’t glower. He had the power of the happy man. “Sometimes now the cost of admission into politics is bitterness, bile and guile,” said the pollster Kellyanne Conway. He was old-style, and humane. Ms. Conway got her first job in politics as an intern in Kemp’s office. “Who are you?” he once said. “I’m just an intern here,” she said. “No one is just an intern here,” he replied. He saw politics as a team sport, assigned, delegated and promoted from within. In all the years Ms. Conway knew him, she never heard him ask what the polls were saying. When he ran as Bob Dole’s vice presidential nominee in 1996, he flopped as a hatchet man. It wasn’t in his DNA.
He was an optimist not in the modern and prevalent sense of being too stupid to know things can go bad, but in a way that suggested an informed sunniness. If things get dark, and they might, we’ll have the brains, heft and resourcefulness to turn it around.
Some leaders are inspiring, and some are effective managers. Kemp was both. He knew how to execute and was a successful legislator. Persuasion is not enough, action and movement must follow. Ms. Conway: “There’s something about having been a quarterback that lets you understand the play clock is running, and if you don’t move forward you lose your chance.”
He cared about the poor. Politicians always claim to, but he did. Economic policy was social policy. If the rising tide didn’t lift the small skiffs, it wasn’t good enough. He cared about black America. He knew and worked with African-Americans all his life, they were his teammates, he and his wife socialized with them off the field. He saw us as the same. Noblesse oblige was not his style. He was neither wealthy nor Ivy League; life was not all abstract to him. And it is hard to feel or be patronizing toward a lineman who just sacked you and you went down hard. He didn’t come into politics in the 1960s carrying on his back the garbage of another era.
He became a symbol of inclusion. “The GOP was also the party of the Sunbelt strategy, the Southern strategy,” said Lloyd Green, a lawyer who served in George H.W. Bush’s administration. “Those are real components of real America, and if you are inside that tent, it can be warm. If you are outside that tent, it can be freezing or worse. Kemp, in my mind, was a walking reminder that the GOP was once the party of Lincoln.”
He was proof that the big tent has to be big. On spending his voting record tended to be to the left of Reagan’s budgets. Politics is about coalitions, and representing Buffalo, N.Y., is not the same thing as representing Orange County, Calif., back in the day.
He believed that economic freedom would lead to other kinds of freedom, and greater harmony too, if we worked at it. If we worked it right, everything that had been holding us back would break like a rusty chain. He thought someday we’d have a black president. When Barack Obama was elected, he wrote a letter to his grandchildren saying, “Is this a great country or what?”
He helped lead the old Republican party away from some of its narrower instincts, including a “green eyeshade” view of history: Democrats put forward spending bills and entitlements, reaping thanks and political rewards, Republicans act like accountants, responding, by reflex, with tax increases. In Kemp’s day it was called “root-canal economics”: tax, spend, and leave the taxpayer shrieking with pain.
The best brief history of what Kemp did to break the chain came from Bruce Bartlett, in Forbes. In the early ‘70s the new congressman from Buffalo read, questioned, studied the past. Reminded that the GOP had once been a tax-cutting party, he looked at JFK’s great tax cut, which reduced the top marginal tax rate from a destructive 91% to an improved 70%, and a painful bottom rate of 20% to 14%. Kemp asked the Congressional Research Service what followed JFK’s cuts. The answer: Federal revenues increased. Kemp set to work, putting together a bill patterned on Kennedy’s that cut the top rate from 70% to 50% and the bottom from 14% to 10%. He helped persuade Ronald Reagan in 1980 to embrace it, which wasn’t hard, since Reagan, when an actor, had suffered under the 91%. Both the Reagan presidency and the Kemp-Roth bill became reality in 1981, and “the seven fat years,” a phrase of the late Bob Bartley, editor of this page and a journalistic leader of Kemp and Reagan’s political movement, began.
Kemp was half of one of the most moving partnerships in modern American political history. “Some say Reagan wouldn’t have been Reagan without Kemp,” says Jimmy Kemp. “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this: Kemp would not have been Kemp without Joanne Main.” She was his stability and support as he went “from passion to passion.” She was, is, a citizen, a maker of new communities and supporter of existing ones. She picked their first house because it was near her church, Fourth Presbyterian in Bethesda, Md. For 38 years she’s led a Christian study group that meets every Friday morning at her home. She did the same in Buffalo. “He was the power of political ideas, she was the power of spiritual ones,” says their son. She has devoted her time and energy to friends, neighbors, husband, Prison Fellowship, groups that advocate for the unborn, four children and 17 grandchildren. She is one of those who quietly make it possible for Washington to function, however imperfectly, as a real and coherent community.
Once before I was to give a big speech, I saw her in the audience and told her I felt nervous. “Then we must pray,” she said, and did, unselfconsciously, with focus, in a gray folding chair in a cavernous auditorium with hundreds of people milling about. That’s who was behind Jack Kemp. No wonder he did what he did.