Jack French Kemp, RIP

Mona Charen
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Posted: May 05, 2009 12:01 AM
Jack French Kemp, RIP

Jack Kemp was supposed to read this column. A dinner in his honor was scheduled for next week and I had timed the column to appear just prior. The last his friends had heard, he was improving. Now it's too late.

Jack Kemp was deserving of tribute in so many ways -- as a leader, as a thinker, as a family man, and as a Christian (are you still allowed to say that?).

In 1986, when the chessboard was being arranged for the 1988 presidential race, I chose to leave my post in the Reagan White House and go to work for the most exciting political figure in the Republican Party -- Congressman Jack Kemp. A speechwriter for Jack Kemp learns many things -- superfluity being first. I'm not sure why Jack ever hired speechwriters. We all had the same experience. You labored over a 30-minute address. He would go over it and suggest changes (he once corrected my prose by telling me that it "read like an article in Commentary" rather than a campaign speech) and we would proceed to the event. Jack would mount the podium, put the speech on the lectern, and talk for 30 or 40 minutes without once referring to the text in front of him. He would pull articles out of his jacket pocket or respond to something that he heard on the news that morning. His fertile mind was always working. When I was introduced to supporters, they would say "Oh, you write Jack Kemp's speeches!" and I would reply "I write them. He seldom delivers them."

But what Jack had to say would change the Republican Party forever. An autodidact, he had studied economics and history, and became a tireless evangelist for supply-side economics. He peppered his speeches with references to "capital" and "labor" -- which this speechwriter found a little dry -- but he also preached "opportunity" and "growth," which resonated. He recognized that capitalism, and the unique opportunities it can foster, was far more important for those in the middle and at the bottom of the economic pyramid than it was for those at the top. Jack truly and deeply wanted to give people the chance to improve themselves. He had seen how it could work close up. His father had started with nothing. He borrowed money to buy one truck and eventually developed his business into a profitable trucking company. Jack wanted to distribute that kind of opportunity as broadly as possible. As the author of the Kemp/Roth tax cutting legislation, Jack became the godfather of the Reagan domestic agenda.

The United States Congress is chock full of lawyers and other accomplished men and women. But no one read more avidly than the former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. I remember Irving Kristol marveling over his first meeting with Kemp in the 1970s. Kemp had asked Kristol to suggest a reading list. Kristol politely, if skeptically, complied. A few weeks later, Kristol ran into Kemp again and was stunned to discover that Jack had read every book on the list and was ready to discuss them!

Even the fact that Jack became a winning quarterback was a tribute to his grit and buoyant spirit. Though he had been a college star, his pro career did not get off to an easy start. Nothing was handed to him. The AP described it this way: "Kemp was a 17th round 1957 NFL draft pick by the Detroit Lions, but was cut before the season began. After being released by three more NFL teams and the Canadian Football League over the next three years, he joined the American Football League's Los Angeles Chargers as a free agent in 1960. A waivers foul-up two years later would land him with the Buffalo Bills, who got him at the bargain basement price of $100." And yet, Jack Kemp led the Bills to the 1964 and 1965 American Football League's championships, and was voted the league's most valuable player in 1965. He co-founded and became the president of the AFL Players Association, and found time to serve in the Army reserves. He would later say that pro football was excellent preparation for politics: "When I entered the political arena, I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded, and hung in effigy."

Kemp was more than a supply-side evangelist. He was also a serious student of foreign policy. While his hopes for mankind were expansive, his tolerance for dictators and tyrants was nonexistent. His love of capitalism was inseparable from his love of liberty.

Most of all when I think of Jack Kemp, I think of his tremendous devotion to his wife, Joanne, and to their four children and 17 grandchildren. Though he achieved great things in public life, he managed to do it without neglecting his family. That is a man in full. He will be greatly missed.