The Jack Kemp Foundation turned on its lights this week, and held a successful fundraiser in downtown Washington. It will be interesting to see if the foundation can live up to its namesake. If I was management over there, I wouldn’t even try.
When Kemp died in May all sorts of luvey-duvey articles were published about him. But the real Jack Kemp was about power, ego, drive, fame, wealth, growth and seizing things… for himself, and for his country.
Kemp was a professional quarterback before the OSHA-like regulations were put in place protecting quarterbacks from linemen (and offenses from defenses). As a politician he surrounded himself with jugglers and flame-throwers like Jude Wanniski, Mary Cannon, David Smick, Jeff Bell and John Buckley, and threw himself into the biggest fights of the day.
From his narrow political base in an outlying western New York Congressional district, Kemp led a frontal assault on the “new economics” of the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon years, and won. He and his acolytes unraveled the Keynesian consensus and in six years brought the top marginal income tax rate in this country from 70 down to 28. The stock market rose 10 fold and the US economy jumped from 20% to 33% of global output in 20 years.
While negotiating with Ronald Reagan over the candidate’s economic program in the late 1970s, Kemp simultaneously threatened to run for president himself. This helped the Reagan people assimilate the Kemp economic model. Kemp was actually Reagan’s second choice for VP in 1980, and had that decision been made there might not have been two Bush presidencies and all the associated consequences.
Lots of commentators thought Kemp aggressively pursued relations with the black civil rights community because it was good politics, or they were oppressed. Actually, Kemp was driven to liberate those millions of poor people stuck in government ghettos because he knew their poverty was holding America back, and that America is not about holding people back. If we could get all those good people working and saving and starting businesses, America would be even more muscular and prosperous. The poor (and immigrants) were probably America’s greatest asset.
Kemp wrote his War on Poverty into the 1984 GOP platform and implemented sizeable chunks of those ideas through his urban enterprise zones, the 1986 tax reform act, and during his time as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In 1983 the Martin Luther King holiday bill was coming up again for a Congressional vote. It had been blocked by Republicans in previous tries. Kemp asked several of us staffers to read King’s speeches and a bio or two (I was his press secretary then). We reported back that King appeared to be after the same thing as Jefferson and Lincoln, which was the rolling liberation of the American people. Kemp announced his support for the holiday bill to a shocked Appropriations Committee hearing room, and busted the necessary GOP votes to pass the bill.
Kemp was also the Godfather of the Opportunity Society Republicans organized by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey that took over the Congress in 1994, blocked President Clinton’s big government agenda, and finally compelled Clinton to make good on his promise to roll back welfare.
Kemp lost his biggest battle, however, and the country has paid dearly as a result. He desperately tried to turn Reagan against the paper dollar, floating exchange rate system devised by George Schultz, Paul Volcker and Milton Friedman. The debate was rough and personal, and it especially hurt Friedman. Reagan stuck with his favorite economist, Friedman. The debt bomb explosion, and manufacturing collapse our Nation has suffered in the subsequent years are in no small part traceable back to that lost battle.
American voters have a way of tossing up political leaders like Jack Kemp just in the nick of time. As the federal bureaucracy swallows up the US economy, and as the Federal Reserve Board continues to degrade our dollars, we can expect some new phoenix like Kemp to be tossed up any day now.
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