Misunderstanding Kemp

Posted: May 12, 2009 12:01 AM
Misunderstanding Kemp

While mourning a close friend, it’s interesting to hear what others have to say about him. As expected, the recent passing of Jack Kemp generated glowing tributes from commentators both right and left.

Yet some seem set on rewriting history.

Liberal Bob Herbert, for example, began his column in The New York Times by conceding that Kemp’s idea to grow the Republican Party was a good one. But, he wrote, “The bad idea, advanced by Kemp with fanatical energy and devotion, was supply-side economics -- ‘voodoo economics,’ as George H.W. Bush so famously and rightly derided it.” Herbert added of those inspired by Kemp, “Cut taxes, they argued, and watch the economy take off like a rocket.”

As history already shows, though, that is exactly what happened.

The Kemp-Roth tax cuts of 1981 laid the groundwork for President Reagan’s cuts in the early 1980s. By slashing rates, these cuts triggered more than 25 years of virtually uninterrupted economic growth -- just as similar supply-side cuts proposed by President Kennedy had worked decades earlier.

The first time I met Jack, in 1971, he was a freshman congressman and I was working for another member on Capitol Hill. I stopped by because I’d heard he understood economics and how the economy worked -- rare traits in any congressman, and ones to be nurtured as much as possible.

Amid the reports, files and newspapers piled on his desk, there were only two books. One was his Bible, “to keep my moral compass straight,” he said. The other was “The Constitution of Liberty” by Friedrich von Hayek, “to keep my freedom agenda straight.” He never veered from that freedom agenda, and he recognized a fundamental truth: Economic freedom and opportunity are good for everyone, not simply a select few.

In 1996, Jack asked me to take a leave-of-absence from my day job to join him on the campaign trail as he ran for vice president. Instead of hitting only the usual Republican hot beds, Kemp traveled to such locales as Watts, the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago and Harlem.

When a weary aide wondered whether we should spend more time focusing on the conservative base, Jack answered, “No, you don’t understand. We’ve got to reach out. Everybody should have the same opportunities that you and I had.”

As was so often the case, Jack was exactly right. He pressed for “enterprise zones” and public-housing reform -- and these ideas of his have changed millions of lives for the better.

Jack knew freedom wasn’t just for Americans, either. We were walking through Red Square in 1990 when he announced, “We’ve won. This system is dead.” How could he be so sure? He had noticed that the line at the new McDonald’s was much longer than the line at Lenin’s Tomb. It was an observation that eluded some of our nation’s best spy masters at the time. Given a choice, people select freedom over tyranny, capitalism over command-and-control. We had, indeed, won.

Jack believed in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. He was an eternal optimist. He liked to say he’d been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy during his football career, so there wasn’t much else mere politicians could do to him.

That made it easier for him to reach out to members of the other party. It’s why Joe Lieberman, Charlie Rangel and many other prominent Democrats joined George H. W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich at his memorial service.

Politics wasn’t personal for Jack; it was a means to an end, a method of spreading his good ideas of freedom and opportunity. And the only way to grow his party, he knew, was to spread freedom. The two goals went hand-in-hand.

History will celebrate Kemp’s shimmering legacy. His exuberant personality is irreplaceable. But his optimistic agenda lives on, and -- as he knew -- eventually will prevail.