Al Hunt on the Differences Between Paul Ryan and Jack Kemp

by Reihan Salam

The idea of exploring the differences between Paul Ryan and Jack Kemp, one of Ryan’s early mentors, is a good one. But I wonder about the clarity of Hunt’s perspective, e.g.:

Ryan lacks his mentor’s inclusiveness and empathy. Kemp was at a home in the barrio or the ghetto, where he sought to share his entrepreneurial American dream. That isn’t Ryan’s world. Black or Hispanic leaders would have been in Kemp’s rolodex and on a first-name basis with the ex-congressman from New York and secretary of Housing and Urban Development. With Ryan, these constituencies have a correct and distant relationship.

In the years since Jack Kemp was politically active, America’s political and ethnocultural landscape has changed considerably. The class of people we’d describe as “black or Hispanic leaders” has grown larger and more diverse, yet it has arguably grown more partisan as well, for a number of reasons.

Consider the biography of Ben Jealous, the current president of the NAACP. The child of academic parents, Jealous was raised in California’s Monterey Peninsula. After graduating from Columbia University and working as a crusading journalist for some years, he received a post-graduate degree in social research from Oxford. Having led Amnesty International’s domestic human rights program, he has been a sharp critic of aggressive policing strategies. He has also emerged as a leading advocate of same-sex civil marriage, a view that is less widely embraced on the right than it is on the left. 

One of Jealous’s main causes at the NAACP has been leading the charge against charter schools. There is much to be said about the agenda Jealous has pursued at the NAACP. Some aspects of it strike me as a more compelling than others. What is clear, however, is that Jealous is very much in tune with the conventional ideological left. When we look to the leadership of many parallel organizations that aim to represent the interests of various other minority groups, I suspect we’d find similar patterns of ideological convergence. Moreover, many of these organizations are no longer best understood as mass membership organizations, in part because of the erosion of social capital and the economic and geographical dispersion of what we might call the leadership class.  

So if Paul Ryan did indeed have Ben Jealous in his rolodex, it is not entirely clear what they would discuss and how warmly they would discuss it. We could understand this as a failing on Ryan’s part, as Hunt implicitly suggests. We could also understand it as not dissimilar to the fact that Ryan and Katie Roiphe, who has recently taken to the New York Times op-ed page to suggest that the growing prevalence of single motherhood is an entirely neutral if not positive development in American life, aren’t, as far as I know, on a first-name basis.