Among the many tragedies of the contemporary Republican party is that the partisans who will honor the memory of former Congressman, cabinet member and 1996 vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp have refused so consistently and belligerantly to embrace the man’s wisest political insight.
“The only way to oppose a bad idea is to replace it with a good idea,” said Kemp, who worked harder than anyone else to make the GOP a positive force rather than the “party of no.”
Unfortunately, the “no” camp prevailed and the Republican party that Kemp imagined as a modern tribune of humane and enlightened conservative ideals–the twenty-first-century version of the British Tory Party that evolved under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli–died well before the death on Saturday at age 73 of the most open and optimistic leader of the GOP in the 1980s and 1990s.
I knew Kemp quite well, and liked him very much.
Our acquaintance began at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention, which even in the days of Ronald Reagan’s “big tent” and Bush’s “kinder, gentler” Republican party was not the likeliest place to find a member of a conservative president’s cabinet. But Kemp, who joked that he was a “bleeding-heart conservative,” took seriously the “party of Lincoln” label that many of his contemporaries bantered about as mere rhetoric. A former quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills, Kemp had spent his formative years relying on African-American members of those teams, and he was genuinely pained both by the fact that a growing number of Americans had come since the 1960s to see his party as racially insensitive and by the fact that too many of his fellow Republicans had acted in ways that lent legitimacy to the criticism.
When Kemp became George H.W. Bush’s secretary of housing and urban development, he set out to prove that conservatives had better ideas for how to revitalize American cities. As it turned out, most of Kemp’s ideas were fatally flawed–he was, for instance, a passionate exponent of “public-private partnerships” that invariably shifted public money into the bank accounts of private speculators. And he never succeeded in getting the majority of Republicans (or, for that matter, leading Democrats) to commit to an urban agenda that, in his words, would “work for the people in need, not those motivated by greed.” But I came over time to believe that, whether we agreed on not on specific programs, Kemp was sincere in his view that Republicans could and should compete for the votes of all Americans–and especially of African-Americans, Latinos and other minority groups that he argued had been let down by the Democratic Party.
My respect for Kemp was rooted in my experience with the antiapartheid movement in the US and South Africa. While many leading conservatives in the US were busy making excuses for the racist and antidemocratic regime in South Africa, Kemp emerged as a bold and consistent critic of apartheid. And he worked hard, if not always successfully, to get Republicans to recognize the freedom struggle in South Africa as having links to the founding fights of the GOP. Recalling the first Republican president, Kemp suggested after apartheid had ended and South Africa had experienced a peaceful transition of power that “Abraham Lincoln’s response to a Union soldier at Gettysburg who asked him after his address why he showed no rancor or anger toward his Confederate enemies comes to mind: ‘Do I not destroy my enemy by making him my friend?’ There is no better example of this spirit in the twentieth century than Nelson Mandela.”