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.”
Kemp never hesitated to compare Mandela to both Lincoln and George Washington.
When I traveled with Mandela during the South African leader’s 1990 visit to the United States, he and Kemp greeted one another warmly in the nation’s capital. Mandela was well aware of Kemp’s long and often frustrating struggles within a Republican Party that had, at its highest levels, opposed using economic sanctions to combat apartheid.
In particular, Mandela was aware of what, to my view, was Kemp’s finest moment.
At the eightieth convention of the NAACP in 1989, the HUD secretary boldly declared his solidarity with Mandela and the South African majority and demanded that the country’s white minority government “let our people go.”
Kemp did not stop there. He admitted to the cheering crowd that the Republican Party was “nowhere to be found” in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and pledged to do his best–as a cabinet member, party leader and prospective presidential candidate–to forge a “radical Republican Party” that was worthy of African-American support.
Kemp never gave up on that mission. He maintained close ties to the NAACP, even as President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top Republicans aggressively and pointedly distanced themselves from the civil rights organization.
In the fall of 2007, when the leading candidates for the 2008 Republican nomination for president boycotted a debate about race relations that had been organized by Tavis Smiley and was scheduled to be held at Morgan State University, Kemp tore into John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson for their racial and political insensitivity.
“I’m absolutely shocked and deeply and profoundly saddened that the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass would not come to the ‘Tavis Smiley Show,’ ” Kemp said in an appearance on Smiley’s program.
An angry and frustrated Kemp pulled no punches when Smiley asked whether the behavior of the leading Republican presidential candidates would hurt the party.
“I would say yes, it will do damage,” responded Kemp. “I watched the [Democratic candidates] debate at Howard, as I pointed out, but the Republican candidates, by missing Morgan State, to a large degree they missed Univision, Urban League, NAACP. I just think it’s really bad politics. I don’t think it’s good for our democracy, and again I think we will be punished at the polls for seemingly turning our back on such a large proportion of the American people.”
Kemp was prophetic on that precise point, as he was prophetic on the broader question of how the party of Lincoln should respond to the twenty-first century.
Unfortunately, while he chose personally to stand on the right side of history, Jack Kemp was never successful in forging the radical Republican Party that would honor not just Lincoln legacy or the promise of the American experiment in which Kemp so deeply believed.