Former Buffalo Bills quarterback turned political leader Jack Kemp died over the weekend. He was 73. Many people probably remember him because he was such a popular figure on the talk show circuit, both while he was in office and after he left. And because he was such an eager advocate for whatever he believed in — sometimes too eager — interviewing him was a challenge because it was hard to get a word in edgewise, even a question.
What he believed in most was so-called supply-side economics, the tax-cutting philosophy that is most closely associated with conservative Republicans like Ronald Reagan. But what he also believed in was equal opportunity.
Can I just tell you? Of all the people I have ever met, let alone public figures I have ever met, he might be one of the few I can think of as colorblind. And I mean that in a good way. Not blind in the sense of a convenient indifference to other people's real-life circumstances, but a real lack of interest in race — or class or status, for that matter — as a determining factor in his opinions about people.
As many people know, after his football-playing days ended, Kemp served as a member of Congress for nine terms, representing western New York. He was often quoted as saying his football career served him well as preparation for his later and longer career in politics because, according to a version quoted by The Associated Press, by the time he got into office he had been "booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy."
But football was good preparation in other ways, because Kemp clearly saw — in a way many of his white peers somehow did not — how ridiculous and destructive racism was for people who were trying to reach a common goal.
In a letter to his grandchildren that he posted on his company Web site shortly after the election of Barack Obama in November, Kemp talked about how, as a quarterback for the old San Diego Chargers, playing for the AFL championship in Houston, his father sat on the 50-yard line, while his co-captain's father, who was black, had to sit in a small roped-off section of the end zone.
He reminded his 17 grandchildren of the indignities, small and large, that he saw his teammates and friends endure. But he also went on to say, "I could go on and on ... but just imagine in the face of all these indignities and deprivations, Dr. Martin Luther King could say 44 years ago, 'I have an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in mankind.' "
And Kemp went on to say, "Real leadership is not just seeing the realities of what we are temporarily faced with, but seeing the possibilities and potential that can be realized by lifting up people's vision of what they can be."
Kemp will be missed for many reasons, not least because he demonstrated that conservative principles can be argued without the subtext of race-baiting and nativism, to which so many of his peers continue to resort when their electoral backs are against the wall. In fact, it strikes me that the Republican Party, of which Kemp was a committed member, and the traditional civil rights leadership, of which he was often an ally, face a similar quandary of maintaining relevance in a fast-changing country.
The Republicans, their African-American party chairman notwithstanding, need to determine whether they will stand on ideas — and which ones — or resort to old tactics and tropes. The civil rights leadership, having been denied the respect and appreciation most deserved in their prime, sometimes seems to the younger generation overpraised and accorded excessive deference now, to the point where some younger leaders fear they will never be free of these elders' assumptions and expectations.
Kemp's words to his grandchildren are instructive here, too. He said, "My advice for you, too, is to understand that unity for our nation doesn't require uniformity or unanimity. It does require putting the good of our people ahead of what's good for mere political or personal advantage."
Worth remembering, as we remember Jack Kemp.