Jack Kemp’s Real Legacy

By Bill McKenzie

Back in 1989, the group I was working for in Washington held a fundraiser where Jack Kemp and Tom Kean were the keynote speakers. Kean, who had been New Jersey’s governor, and our group, the Ripon Society, were in the liberal wing of the Republican Party. Kemp, of course, was a product of the conservative wing. But throughout the 1980s he was increasingly talking about the GOP needing to broaden its reach. So, he accepted our invitation to speak about a more inclusive GOP.

He showed up at the dinner with all the flash and flair of a former NFL quarterback. I remember he quipped to some of us who were waiting to usher him in that he had come to enlighten us. But he had none of the insular, angry and arrogant tone one might expect of a speaker walking into a skeptical audience. Instead, he flashed his big, toothy smile, slapped backs and did all the things good pols do to win over an audience.

I remember being surprised and impressed. A good friend had worked for Kemp back in the early 1980s, and I knew she respected him. But I had thought he was a Johnny-one-note. If it didn’t have to do with tax cuts, forget it. And deficits? Don’t bother, they don’t matter.

But he was really good at the dinner and clearly was a guy who was aware the GOP couldn’t just talk to itself.

At the time, he was George H.W. Bush’s HUD secretary, and he was spending time in inner cities talking about his ideas to revitalize them. He preached urban enterprise zones with all the fervor of a revivalist. And while he could sound one-note-ish here as well, not many Republicans were showing up in inner ctieis.

I love the point that the Mavs’ president, Terdema Ussery, made in our editorial today: Kemp learned a lot about the aspirations of blacks during his days as a quarterback. He never forgot that experience, which informed his views about politics. He didn’t want to live in a party that looked like a white-folks club.

As our editorial today says, the GOP needs more Jack Kemps. They need people who value ideas and who speak about them with passion. And they need people who understand parties survive by being a coalition of interests, not a church run by the office of doctrinal affairs.

Kemp’s embodiment of those two points are, in my mind, his real legacy.