Jack Kemp's career spanned from quarterback to politics.
I was always of two minds when it came to Jack Kemp. He was personable and unfailingly optimistic. And he was convinced that his philosophy of supply-side economics was the right way to go, both for the party and, more important, the country.
At the same time, I always questioned whether his zeal would translate into success at the ballot box. I'm trying to remember the first time I met him, but I think it was in Iowa, in 1987, and if memory serves, he was talking to a group of farmers about returning to the gold standard. And I'm thinking there's something wrong with this picture.
Jack Kemp died Saturday night of cancer. He was 73 years old, and for someone who has watched him his entire political career, I had to stop and remind myself he was that old. My clearest memories of him were from the late '70s and early '80s, when his advocacy of tax cuts and Ronald Reagan made him one of the most popular of the Republican Party's new faces. He differed from Reagan mostly on style; the former California governor always came off as an "aw shucks" kind of campaigner, while Kemp was earnest and intense.
The other mainstay of Kemp's philosophy was that the GOP needed to be more inclusive. From the outset of his career in electoral politics, which began with a successful bid for an open congressional seat in western New York (Buffalo) in 1970, he pushed for Republicans to do what they could to bring more African-Americans into the party.
Kemp's popularity as the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills gave him the opportunity to win his House seat, but he never relied on his celebrity as a member of Congress. Nor was he content to be a quiet backbencher. He became a leading figure of a growing movement in the party that pushed not only to cut taxes but to renovate the entire tax code system itself.
He backed Reagan's successful 1980 presidential bid from the beginning. That same year, New York Republicans wanted him to challenge liberal Sen. Jacob Javits (R) in the primary but he turned them down ... perhaps hoping Reagan would pick him for vice president.
(Reagan went elsewhere with his VP pick — George Bush — and Javits was beaten in the primary by a relatively unknown Long Island Republican, Al D'Amato.)
Once Reagan was elected, Kemp's influence in the House grew. The president embraced Kemp's view on tax cuts early in his administration, and Kemp himself was elected chairman of the House Republican Conference. And it was clear early on that Kemp saw himself as the heir to Reagan and Reaganomics; the 1984 GOP convention in Dallas was filled with "Kemp in '88" signs. But Kemp had trouble distinguishing himself in his bid for the nomination in 1988. Most attention, and votes, were centered on the feud between Vice President George Bush and Senate GOP Leader Bob Dole. Plus, Kemp was further reduced to having to fight for conservative support with the unexpected addition of Pat Robertson to the race. Shortly after Super Tuesday, in March, Kemp dropped out of the race. Once again, he was hoping for a vice presidential offer, but Bush instead turned to Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle.
Kemp did not seek to hold on to his House seat in '88.
After his election, President Bush named Kemp to his Cabinet, as secretary of housing and urban development, where he earned a mixed review. He got credit for innovative ideas and was best known for championing the inner-city poor. And he helped end the stench of corruption and cronyism that had engulfed the department under his predecessor, Samuel Pierce. But in terms of real results, not much changed in his tenure.
Kemp resurfaced in 1996, when longtime rival Dole — now the GOP presidential nominee — picked him as his running mate. It was, at best, a shotgun marriage. They differed on a whole host of issues, mostly economic policy. And they didn't particularly like each other. But the party rank-and-file conservatives never warmed up to Dole, who was more of party tactician than a deep thinker, and the hope, among the Dole people at least, was that the addition of Kemp would give the ticket more energy. (Draw your own parallels to 2008.)
In the end, nothing was going to deny Bill Clinton a second term on his peace and prosperity platform. And for all of Kemp's talk about bringing minorities and the GOP closer, the Republicans only managed to take in 12 percent of the black vote that year.
Kemp on Obama. A fascinating letter, written by Kemp and sent to his 17 grandchildren, shortly after the election of Barack Obama last November. Definitely worth a read.