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RIP Jack Kemp (Part 2)

Thomas F. Roeser 6 May 2009 No Comment

Jack Kemp who died Saturday at age 73 was one of three U. S. congressmen whom I personally knew who should rank with the immortals of the House-Henry Hyde who first brought the issue of unborn children to the fore…and, for all his faults, the brilliant Newt Gingrich who captured control of the House in 1994. Because I convinced Quaker Oats executives to get involved, as individuals, in Kemp’s presidential run, I was drafted to serve as liaison between them and the Kemp organization-particularly in the all-important Iowa caucuses, a state where we had major holdings. Later, when I founded the Republican Assembly of Illinois, an organization of grassroots conservatives, I convinced Kemp to come to Illinois to its initial meeting to give it a send-off.

Kemp was a genius, a brilliant, self-taught expert on the economy who was easily the equal or better than many scholarly Ph.Ds in the field. He absorbed quickly the lessons that Art Laffer and Jude Wanniski taught about supply-side and pressured Ronald Reagan to adopt tax cuts rather than concentrate on the old-time religion: reducing spending so as to conquer inflation. He was a tough one to manage…his talks on the stumps frequently ran into overtime…and often was insensitive to his staff and not responsive to many of his supporters. . In his diaries, Reagan records that he was angry at Kemp for his constant nagging-nagging-nagging.

Like Reagan, Kemp was a charismatic figure but a far more complex one than the 40th president. Unlike Reagan, he was fastidiously concerned with his appearance, was a prima donna with temperament. To my discomfiture as well as Hyde’s, as a candidate for president and later for vice president, he was totally uninterested in social policy. He would give Henry his votes on life issues but had little to say about them on the stump, unlike Reagan. Thus he never built up the following in the evangelical Protestant or conservative Catholic communities that Reagan did.

I tried to get him to speak on social issues one night in Cedar Rapids before a speech but he said, “goddammit get off my back!” As a matter of fact…and this is strange to say but you will understand what I mean when I explain: Kemp was not unlike Karl Marx. Marx and Kemp believed strongly that man was a creature of economics and politics. But where Marx believed in the overthrow of capitalism and the inculcation of communism, Kemp believed in the sanctification of capitalism and investment leading to the overthrow of communism and the subordination of government to the free market. But both were…at their boiling points… abject materialists. At that time, Jack was quite uncomfortable mentioning or thinking of a higher purpose than a prosperous economy. I know this because we talked often. This is quite different than the course followed by his loyal wife Joann who was a leader in Christian activity and a pro-life activist.

Another difference between him and Reagan: Reagan was a much, much simpler man, less complicated and frankly not of overpowering intellect, but he had a way of expressing truisms that resonated with crowds. When Reagan talked about the economy it was simple nuts and bolts that sent heads to nodding in agreement. But Jack was different. He seemed to want to impress audiences with his economic knowledge and so rattled on with economic jargon…using phrases like “forward market”-a market in which parties agree today to exchange commodities or other assets for money at a “forward price,” to be set at a future date with no money changing hands until the contract maturity date. That would send heads nodding in the audience as well, but nodding because they were going to sleep! He would talk dynamically, fading back as if to throw a pass as he spoke, spewing out phrases like “market-clearing level” i.e. the price or quantity at which supply and demand are equal.

We begged him before he made speeches to stay away from the gold standard as a topic…not because to endorse it was radical…it certainly was not… but because the topic seemed esoteric to Iowa audiences. We were rarely successful. He was enthusiastic about expounding the fact that when the government is legally obliged to turn over a specific amount of gold to anyone who turns in paper dollars, it can’t run the printing presses overtime.

Okay, okay but that was certainly not the prime topic on people’s minds in the Iowa caucuses. Beyond his undeniable great grasp of the economy which was self-taught, I always felt he was trying to impress audiences that he was more than a Phy Ed major from Occidental. One other disadvantage as a candidate: trying to get him to call contributors was like pulling teeth. He seldom did it and when he did, he didn’t do it well.

I always thought Jack sought to balance his free market advocacy with a kind of liberal advocacy and patronizing on the issue of race that made him seem impractical and not genuine. I felt he should never have taken the HUD role with George H. W. Bush. He had utterly no influence with the senior Bush on his great love of enterprise zones and instead watered down his free-market credentials by becoming just another big government grant-in-aid pusher, allowing his department to grow larger than it had ever been before.

The other thing about Jack was that he had too much confidence in himself as a debater…not wanting to recognize for a second that he was likely the worst debater in the Congress and certainly the worst one I have ever seen among the so-called professionals. It is a fact that while he was chalking up House victories in his Buffalo, N. Y. district, there was never a debate he had with a Democratic opponent that he won. This is because he steadfastly refused to cram for them, resolving to “wing it” and diverted into irrelevancies, economic statistics and the like while his opponent was nailing him which he ignored…or set forensic traps for him to fall into, which he always did. Consequently when he ran for vice president with Bob Dole in 1996 he not only lost his debate with Al Gore but was skunked: a humiliating performance.

At the end of his life when he was told his illness was terminal, Jack Kemp turned to a quest for God that equaled and possibly topped the energetic free market advocate he had been years earlier. When he died, he was unhappy with the big government push that had happened under George W. Bush and could see no realistic successor to him or Reagan in the party. Yet his own influence as one who topped even Reagan as the progenitor of a return to free market health will see that his memory never fades. He is one of the very few great men of the U. S. House, one who could well have become president had he better control over his free-form impulses-but who was an historic legislator on economy notwithstanding that his enemies in the GOP saw to it that he never served on Ways and Means.

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