In this new book, veteran journalists Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke make a strong case that the late Jack Kemp (1935–2009) was “the most important politician of the 20th century who was not president.” They are probably correct in their assessment; partisans of, say, Sam Rayburn might differ, but then, let them write their own book. And even Rayburnians would have to agree that Kemp was hugely consequential in his time. The unresolved question, then, is how he should be regarded today.
In their book, clearly a labor of love, Barnes and Kondracke declare that Kemp “embodied a spirit sorely missing in today’s politics — in both parties. Kemp was positive, optimistic, idealistic, energetic, growth- and opportunity-oriented.” As the co-authors tell it, Kemp deserves credit “for not only pulling America out of the deep malaise of the 1970s but also for helping to win the Cold War and convert much of the world to democratic capitalism.”
And once again, that’s certainly true. But in linking Kemp to what they call “big-government conservatism,” they underscore the reality that in today’s politics, Kemp would be seen as “unrealistic” and “romantic.”
So where did Kemp come from? And what was the origin of his belief system? He was born in Los Angeles in the middle of the Depression; but his father, Paul, by dint of hard work, made a success of his trucking business, overcoming both slow growth and the New Deal’s “alphabet soup” of regulations. By the force of his example, this soft-spoken father must have made a deep impression on his four children, including Jack, the second youngest.
Yet by all accounts, it was his mother, Frances, who was the spark in the family. Paul might have been the hardworking breadwinner, but Frances was, write Barnes and Kondracke, the “assertive intellect.” Raised as Christian Scientists, the Kemp kids were imbued with the universalistic ethos of the American dream; they believed in, and rigorously practiced, tolerance and non-discrimination.
The result, in Jack, was a kind of realistic idealism, a well-grounded high-mindedness. One is reminded of Raymond Chandler’s famous characterization of a modern detective hero (a description that best fits his own most famous creation — another Angeleno, the private eye Philip Marlowe): “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”
Yet as a youngster, Kemp didn’t seem the least bit interested in anything but football. He grew up idolizing Bob Waterfield, the L.A. Rams quarterback; in school, when assigned to write an essay on a great invention, he chose the forward pass.
At 5′10”, he was a little small for the gridiron, but through hard work and grit he got himself through Occidental College as a star player. And after bouncing around a half dozen pro teams — suffering a total of eleven concussions — he ended up playing for the Buffalo Bills in the upstart American Football League. Kemp took the Bills to two AFL championships and earned an MVP accolade.
His political instincts also began to show: He was elected president of the AFL Players Association. Somewhat like another California Republican who cut his political teeth in union affairs, Ronald Reagan, Kemp always maintained a soft spot in his heart for organized labor; he referred to collective bargaining as “a sacred right.”
Meanwhile, the lifelong jock was emerging as a bit of an intellectual. While his teammates were perusing Playboy and Sports Illustrated, Kemp “devoured U.S. News, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and books.” Indeed, he might well have been the only pro football player to attend the free-market seminars of the Foundation for Economic Education, where he was assigned Hayek, Mises, and Friedman.
In 1970, after a solid career in pro football, Kemp was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Buffalo. The biggest domestic issue back then was slow economic growth — “stagflation.” So Kemp went to work, combining his mother’s idealism with his father’s conservatism, along with a hard-work ethic that can only be called “Kempism.”
And so we enter the most interesting part of the book, as well as the most consequential period of Kemp’s career, in which Kemp spearheaded the supply-side revolution of the Seventies. Kemp fell in with young-Turk economists Arthur Laffer and Robert Mundell, who preached an economic doctrine of loose fiscal policy, tax-rate reductions, and tight money. This was nearly the opposite of the orthodoxy of the era, but in those stagflationary times, something had to give. When Laffer drew his famous Curve on a napkin in a New York City restaurant, the nascent movement had its rallying cry. Jude Wanniski, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, published a groundbreaking piece in 1974 titled “It’s Time to Cut Taxes,” and the epic battle over “supply-side economics” was joined. Someone could write a whole ’nother book on Wanniski as perhaps the foremost “policy entrepreneur” of the age. As the authors slyly record, “Wanniski played a double role: as Kemp’s speechwriter and a journalist covering Kemp.”
They add: “Under Wanniski’s influence, Kemp became a tax cutter first and a budget balancer hardly at all.” Indeed, as Kemp told Fortune in 1978, “I don’t worship at the shrine of the balanced budget.” No kidding. Indeed, perhaps the shrewdest shorthand summary of supply-side was that it was a kind of inverted deficits-are-good Keynesianism — and this writer heard it from no less than Wanniski himself, a number of times, in the Eighties.
Kemp knew he was flouting Republican orthodoxy — and that he would need allies in his insurgency. Never a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, he went way outside channels, all the way to the U.S. Senate; he teamed up with Senator Bill Roth of Delaware to reprise the guiding idea of the Kennedy tax cuts of the Sixties — that is, across-the-board rate reductions.
Such reductions were anathema to the Republican Old Guard of the Hoover-to-Goldwater stripe. And if that caliber of opposition made winning unlikely, well, that’s just a reminder of how exhilarating it was to be part of the supply-side movement in those days. To borrow Wordsworth’s famous evocation of the revolutionary spirit, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”
Indeed, some members of the Old Guard were converted to Kemp’s new thinking. One such was former senator Bill Brock (Tenn.), who chaired the Republican National Committee from 1977 to 1981 and did as much as anyone to make supply-side economics the new party orthodoxy.
But the big “get” for the supply-siders was Ronald Reagan. The Gipper was nominally on the side of the Hoover-Goldwaterites in his 1976 presidential campaign, and yet as he geared up to run again in 1980, he spent time with Kemp and Wanniski, coming away a convert. As the authors assert, Kemp was thus the “John the Baptist,” paving the way for the Reagan revolution. It was Jack Kemp, the happy warrior, who preached and converted. As Newt Gingrich put it: “In a real sense, Jack brought love into the Republican party. He loved people. He loved life.”
Yet Kemp had weaknesses, and Barnes and Kondracke tend to gloss over them. His wife, Joanne, is described in the book simply as “a saint,” which might leave some readers hungry for a fuller description of their half-century marriage.
Moreover, the co-authors tend to gloss over Kemp’s political mistakes, or at least missed opportunities. At his peak, in the early Eighties, Kemp chose not to run for the U.S. Senate, nor for the governorship of New York. Winning either of those offices would have greatly enhanced his political career. Instead, he was content to remain a backbencher in the House. One must remember: In electoral politics, fortune favors the bold.
Yet as an intellectual force, Kemp had no peer. The epic 1986 Tax Reform Act, which lowered tax rates to levels not seen since the 1920s — part of a worldwide wave of tax-rate reductions that has transformed the planet — surely stands as the culmination of Kemp’s career. It stands also as the vindication of the Barnes–Kondracke thesis.
The rest of Kemp’s career was somewhat of a sputtering anticlimax. He ran for president in 1988 — and was no all-star. He overdressed for the campaign trail, sporting foppish gold tie pins, and, more ominously, he talked too much. And on the campaign trail, Kemp, always his mother’s son, made it a point of pride to lecture southern white audiences on civil rights.
As he ended his presidential bid, well shy of the nomination, he closed with a Churchillian flourish: “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”
Meanwhile, other conservative figures with different ideas — perhaps bleaker, perhaps cannier about human nature — came onto the scene. In 1992, Pat Buchanan, the anti-Kemp, declared that America was in the middle of a “culture war,” a vision that went against Kemp’s cheery grain. And Newt Gingrich deftly divided America into two irreconcilable visions, “liberal welfare state” and “conservative opportunity society,” and bade Americans to choose. The result was the 1994 Republican landslide, which gave House Republicans the victory that Kemp never could.
Yet even so, Kemp’s prestige was still great. In 1996, his longtime nemesis inside the party, Bob Dole, swallowed hard and asked Kemp to join him on the national ticket. It’s fair to say that Kemp did not exactly shine as Dole’s running mate; his old problem of indiscipline on the campaign trail was particularly manifest in his weak debate performance against Democrat Al Gore.
Yet all the while, Kemp continued to inspire. His speeches — his lengthy speeches — increasingly ranged beyond tax-rate reductions into other topics, from the fate of Soviet Jews to property rights in the Third World to inner-city empowerment. Kemp ended up like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: admired, even imitated. But he would never be president.
“We have written this book,” the authors explain, “because we believe America is in trouble, perhaps more deeply in trouble than in the 1970s. And we think that Jack Kemp’s spirit — and his policy ideas — could again help turn the country around.”
Maybe. Let’s hope. If there’s a young Jack Kemp out there, let him or her take full inspiration from Kemp’s noble life and policies — and also learn from his many mistakes.
– Mr. Pinkerton, a White House policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.