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Setting the Eagle Free


Jack Kemp was a visionary leader with an enduring passion for liberty and an unfailing love for the American dream.

I first met Jack Kemp in the 1970s, when he still was a relatively unknown member of Congress and I was a Washington correspondent for the San Diego Union.

Jack had played football for the San Diego Chargers before being traded to the Buffalo Bills in 1962. San Diegans were interested in this man they knew as a star quarterback and who now was a congressman from Buffalo talking about cutting taxes to spur economic growth.

Cutting taxes was an idea that resonated in California. A tax revolt was brewing that led to a statewide voter initiative to cap property taxes and ultimately helped sweep President Reagan into office in 1980.  The Kemp-Roth bill was enacted in 1981 with major across-the-board income tax cuts that led to a decade of economic prosperity.

I wrote the first newspaper article about Jack Kemp and his economic ideas in 1978 for the San Diego Union — the first such article, I think, published by any newspaper outside of Buffalo.

My interest in the Laffer curve and supply-side economics led to a 30-year friendship with Jack: After leaving journalism, I was a volunteer speechwriter for his presidential campaign in 1988 and served in 1995-96 as executive director of the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform, which Jack chaired alongside Heritage president Ed Feulner.

The Kemp Commission, as it was widely known, produced visionary recommendations to reform our impossibly complex Internal Revenue Code. The report, “Unleashing America’s Potential: A pro-growth, pro-family tax system for the twenty-first century,” is still very much worth reading, probably more now than ever.

Jack’s introduction was entitled “Setting the Eagle Free” — a summation of the vision that guided all of his works, as congressman, as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as a vice-presidential candidate, and much more.

“The eagle, the symbol of our nation, represents the creative spirit, talents, and aspirations of the American people,” he wrote.  “We want a tax code and an overall economy that will liberate the American dream and remove the barriers to upward social and economic mobility.”

“The charge of this commission and the intent of our recommendations,” he concluded, “is to open the door and help set that eagle in all of us free.”

He had an unshakable belief in the potential of every single person and spent his career advancing ideas to give everyone a chance to achieve his or her potential.

One of the most touching of the many tributes exchanged on e-mail this week was from “the leadership and families in public housing, affordable housing and Section Eight.” Secretary Kemp “understood what it meant to serve the poor,” and he “transformed our communities resulting in the saving of lives,” they wrote. “We are eternally grateful . . . most importantly to be able to call him friend.”

Jack died much too soon at age 73 last Saturday, but his legacy will live on through the thousands of people whose lives and careers he influenced and helped guide, but none more than his beloved children and grandchildren. Our thoughts and prayers will go out to them, and especially to his wonderful, devoted, and loving wife, Joanne, during today’s memorial service at National Cathedral and in the years ahead as Jack’s legacy lives on.

— Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute.


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