Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Some deaths make the world feel old, like they have stolen a part of youth itself. Normally this applies to those who die in their prime. But Jack Kemp's prime was supernaturally long. It is difficult to imagine his bounding arrivals, his shaken-gravel voice, his juice and joy, all stilled and ended. But there it is.

Generations of young conservatives -- most of us no longer young -- were drawn into Jack's orbit (I worked for him briefly in the 1990s as a speechwriter). We were attracted, in one way or another, to Jack's "bleeding-heart conservatism," with its mix of economic opportunity, social inclusion and ebullience. We came to love Jack's gracious wife, Joanne, and his accomplished children. We hoped and expected that Jack would become president of the United States. In the end, he lacked the consuming focus that quest requires. But in his passion for ideas -- and in the affection he inspired -- Jack was the most influential modern Republican who never became president.

Jack believed that ideas -- not interests or political deals or public passions -- rule the world. In this sense, he strangely resembled idealists such as Hegel or Marx, who discerned hidden, powerful currents beneath the surface of history. For Jack, that force was "liberal democratic values" (small "l" and small "d," as he invariably added). Economic freedom, in his view, provides the poor with a hope beyond the dreams of socialism or large "L" Liberalism -- the hope of becoming wealthy themselves. Opportunity, he argued, is the most important measure of economic justice; capitalism is perfected by the broadest possible distribution of capital; and economic freedom and political freedom are inseparable.

This belief in the power of ideas removed all rancor from Jack's political approach. Everyone fell into one of two categories: convert or potential convert. He seemed to believe that if he had just an hour -- better yet, three hours -- with anyone, he could change his or her mind by the force of his ideas. So he gave nearly everyone the benefit of the doubt. He assumed good will on the part of his opponents. And he became the rarest kind of public figure -- a conviction politician who was also a peacemaker.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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