Sunday, May 03, 2009


Last Pass For The GOP QB

While at a birthday celebration for a friend last night, the guest of honor looked at  his Blackberry and said, "Oh my gosh! Jack Kemp died!" He then added, "Wow, I'm now really feeling my mortality."  

No kidding. Even though Kemp announced earlier this year that he was battling some illness, it seemed eerie that he would actually die.  Not because he was seen as some immortal, but because he always had such manic energy that he seemed forever young.  Even with that helmet of gray hair, there always was this rush of exuberance about Kemp.  

It's also sadly ironic that he died on a Saturday concluding a week of existential crisis for his Republican Party.  Kemp encompassed many of the contadictions and controversies that now spark much soul-searching.  On the one hand, as a House disciple of economist Arthur Laffer, he was the man who conceived and shephereded what became known as "the Reagan tax cuts" through Congress. The modern-day Republican Party -- at least its fiscal message -- was built on the foundation of Ronald Reagan embracing the "Kemp-(Delaware Senator William) Roth" legislation reducing income tax rates by 25 percent.

From that moment on the GOP was the party of tax cutting. 

On the other hand, as the representative from a blue-collar Northeast city (Buffalo) -- who had led a pro sports team before entering politics -- Kemp never veered from his message that the Republican Party should be open to people of all backgrounds. 

He pushed a message of outreach all the time.  It's not surprising that, as George H. W. Bush's secretary of Health And Human Services Housing and Urban Development, he started getting criticism from conservatives for seeming to care too much about blacks and the urban poor.  

Thus, he ended up embracing all sorts of criticism -- attacked by both mainstream media as a "Reagan true believer" and then years later by so-called heirs to Reagan as a "squishy moderate." 

So it goes.  

Though it was pretty clear that Bill Clinton was riding toward an easy re-election,  it says a lot about Jack Kemp that the proudest vote I ever cast in a presidential election was in 1996. Cranky Bob Dole tried to inject some energy into the GOP pase by going for a "Hail Mary" pick of "the quarterback" as his running mate. 

Kemp's best days as a professional pol may have been behind him, but I felt very cool about having the chance to pull the lever for a ticket that had his name on it -- if nothing more than to thank him for being the party's happy warrior for many decades.  

Jack Kemp, R.I.P.

UPDATE:  The Democratic Strategist shares a few lesser-known anecdotes about Kemp -- especially his commitment to racial justice before he entered politics.

UPDATE II: Bruce Bartlett remembers his one-time boss.  In a Facebook note commenting on the above post, Bartlett told me, "Jack always used to tell me that the only thing standing between him and those who wanted him dead when he was a quarterback were four really large black men. That sort of thing creates a very deep bond." 

UPDATE III:  Noting the current state of the GOP, the mother of a good friend of mine said of Kemp's passing, "He died of a broken heart."   

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