Aside from my parents there are only a select few who have shaped my life.
Jack Kemp was one of them.
On Saturday, this iconic American leader passed away. He succumbed to a battle with cancer at 73 years of age.
His death hits me hard.
Barely in my teens, my political interests were inspired by Ronald Reagan. They grew each day for the eight years that he was President. But during this same time, I also came to appreciate a Congressman from my home state of New York.
My own Congressman was Chuck Schumer…….a man who was not exactly someone who I considered an innovative, heroic leader. But Jack Kemp was, and although Kemp was from Buffalo and I was from Brooklyn, the distance did not takeaway from the influence that his philosophy and public service had on me.
In the early days of the Reagan Revolution I first came to know of Jack Kemp because of his strong and vocal advocacy of deregulation, enterprise zones and tax reduction. It was his tax cutting legislation that President Ronald Reagan actually endorsed as he began to get America back on track.
Initially proposed in 1978, together with senator Roth of Delaware, Jack
Kemp wrote and sponsored legislation which proposed the 30 percent, across the board, tax cut which was, in large part, enacted in the 1981 Reagan budget.
Kemp’s vigorous promotion of supply-side economics made him a well known, if not controversial, politician and earned him a popular following among the Republican rank and file.
I was one of them.
Many casual voters outside of Buffalo may not have known who Jack Kemp was at the time, but those involved in the issues shaping America sure did. Especially those who considered themselves “movement conservatives.”
A movement conservative is one who supports all, or nearly all, conservative principles with a coherent philosophy, and who advances broad conservative goals both individually and through teamwork.
Back then I did not know it, but I was, and to this day, remain, a movement conservative and Jack Kemp was one of the movement’s leaders.
Over time, I came to appreciate Jack Kemp more and more. I followed his voting record and read the speeches he offered on the floor of the house in the congressional record. His statements were always inspiring to me. Although those speeches were often intermingled with some words that I needed to lookup in the dictionary, once I did, they made sense and they were supported by all that freedom in a free nation means.
On top of that, his voting record always matched his rhetoric. Jack Kemp meant what he said and said what he meant. With Jack Kemp it was not rhetoric, it was reality.
Kemp’s credentials increased in Congress where he became increasingly interested in economic ideas and was a keen supporter of supply-side economics and especially of large cuts in direct taxes, which he argued, would pay for themselves. In addition to being a fiscal conservative, Kemp was also conservative on cultural and foreign affair issues.
In one debate where New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo called the Congressman a “hawk”, Kemp said of himself, “I am not a hawk but actually a heavily armed dove“.
Remarks like that helped define the G.O.P. and it became clear to me that Kemp was a shining example of the type of leadership we expect, want and need in government. He was scandal free, loyal to family, always respected and always leading with innovation. So as Ronald Reagan was finishing his second term and I was coming of age, when Jack Kemp announced that he was seeking the Republican nomination for President, I enlisted in the cause.
I was fortunate to have shown myself capable of playing a role in the campaign, no matter how miniscule.
My own grassroots efforts for the death penalty in New York and other issue oriented campaigns helped to gain my entry into the Kemp camp.
As the primaries began, I found myself traveling to campaign for Jack Kemp in New Hampshire and eventually became a low level field director.
I will never forget sitting on campaign busses, traveling to every Notch from Dixville to Zealand and relaying between the state’s North White Mountains and Great North Woods to its southern sections of Portsmouth and Seabrook in the Seacoast region and Nashua, Concord and Manchester in between.
I coordinated the door-to-door effort in certain assigned locations and coordinated the smaller events and stops that we made. I was often honored beyond belief whenever I had to sit with Kemp on the campaign bus and have the opportunity to brief the would-be-President on events at our next stops and update him on how the door-to-door events at previous stops went.
It was on one such occasion, when after enduring an hour and a half of a door-to-door tour, with the Congressman, in Manchester, I collected the walking sheets of all the addresses and families visited, made sure all the volunteers boarded the bus and proceeded to settle down on the bus to go over the next event with Congressman Kemp. As I approached my seat next to him, I started rattling off the names of the local officials who would be in attendance at the next stop we were approaching.
The Congressman stopped me in mid sentence and asked,…………. “Anthony, are you cold or nervous”?
Now, primary season in New Hampshire is quite a chilly experience and I was cold, but I was also new to this and always a bit nervous in the presence of the man who had become my political hero.
So, stunned by the question, I thought for a moment and realized that the question could have been prompted by my slight shiver from the wintery winds and temperatures I had just experienced or it could have been brought about by the stammering that my nervousness triggered whenever I had to address the candidate.
So after a moment of reflection, I replied……….. “to be honest Congressman, it’s a little bit of both”.
Looking me in the eye, he casually nodded his head while saying to me………… “well let me give you a bit of advice. You might feel warmer if you zipped up your fly. And as for being nervous, just remember, I put my pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. I just happen to pull up my zipper too though”.
Embarrassed beyond belief, I dropped my clip board and all the paperwork I was carrying, turned around, zipped up, and apologized profusely. The Congressman, laughed it off and from that point on I believe he did more to make me feel at ease, than I did to help his campaign.
In the end, even though Kemp did win the first results that came out of Dixville Notch at midnight, when all of New Hampshire’s votes were counted, he came in third behind then Vice President George H.W. Bush and Kansas Senator Bob Dole, but ahead of evangelist Pat Robertson, Reagan’s former chief of Staff, General Alexander Haig and Delaware’s former Congressman and Governor Pete DuPont.
Suffice it to say, I was devastated.
The loss of the nomination did not, however, put an end to Jack Kemp’s service to our country and advancement of the conservative principles that he articulated.
In 1989 the man who beat Kemp and the others, President George H. W. Bush, appointed Kemp to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
In this role Kemp was perceived by many as a maverick rather than a collegial member of the administration. Yet he successfully implemented many policies and programs which won over friends and foes alike. One of Kemp’s most effective creations was the introduction of urban enterprise zones.
With his maverick image in place, in 1996 the Republican nominee for President, Bob Dole picked Kemp to be his Vice Presidential running mate. The selection was something of a surprise, not least because Kemp and Dole had policy disagreements in the past and had been rivals in 1988. Dole had generally been skeptical of massive tax cuts preferring to emphasize deficit reduction but the electoral dynamics of 1996 converted Dole to the merits of tax cuts. In this context Kemp was an ideal vice presidential choice. He symbolized vigorous tax cuts and was able to generate enthusiasm among Republican activists. Kemp was known nationally by many because of his football career and by others because of his visionary economic and defense policies. It was hoped that Kemp’s energetic style and manner would balance Dole’s age.
Maybe it did or maybe didn’t but either way Americans wanted a second term of Clinton and Gore and whether they ended up liking it or not, they got it.
Just as was the case in the 1988 primaries, I was disappointed but just like before, I remained a fan of Jack Kemp.
I feel that there are few people who have actually been involved in politics on par with Kemp. Sincere, principled, hard working, innovative, persistent, consistent and scandal free, Kemp and his leadership has influenced our nation much more than your average politician and he helped take what was once a fringe wing of American political thinking and turned it into mainstream policy.
Of course all of this took place after Jack Kemp, spent 13 years playing professional football where he was a quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills and led the Bills to the American Football League championships in 1964 and 1965,……the same two years he was named the league’s most valuable player.
Not content with his playing on the field, he also co-founded the AFL Players Association, was elected its president for 5 consecutive terms and before he began his elected political career in 1970, Kemp worked for Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign in California during 1966 and served as a special assistant to Reagan when he was Governor.
In 1969 he worked for the chairman of the National Republican Committee until he ran and won his election to Congress, representing the people of the 38th congressional district.
Before and after his time in elected office and as a cabinet secretary, Jack Kemp held steadfast in his convictions on and off the field.
In football Kemp played hard. He also took some hard hits, enough to have caused him to endure a crushed hand, two broken ankles and a dozen concussions. But such dedication to the game he loved carried over into the service he performed for the country he loved. When asked about that service Kemp once stated “Pro football gave me a good perspective, he was quoted as saying. “When I entered the political arena, I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded, and hung in effigy.”
In politics, he used that football experience and tenacity to fight just as hard in the arena of ideas as he did in the football stadium.
He sold Reaganomics to Reagan, believed in a right to life and challenged those within his own party to think big and outside of the box.
Jack Kemp was one of those rare figures in politics who was more than just a partisan politician. He did not tow the party line, he drew the line that was the party.
It is for all these reasons that I chose to call myself “Kempite” on U4prez. Some may try to describe me as a hardcore right-winger or a conservative or neo-con. But few understand that I am actually a movement conservative who calls himself a “bleeding heart, Jack Kemp conservative.
That is why, today, my heart bleeds for the loss of Jack French Kemp.
There may not be a state funeral for this man, or national monuments built in his honor and our nation’s leaders may not even ask for flags to be flown at half-mast in tribute. He may not have been a President or a household name but his life has affected all of us in a profound and positive way.