USA TODAY US Edition
What would Jack Kemp think of Donald Trump? BOOK REVIEW SUSAN PAGE
What the Republican Party needed to do, Jack Kemp would argue throughout his surprising political career, was to reach out to minority voters and immigrants, offer i solutions for urban problems and project an upbeat message about the possibilities of America.
So the explosive rise of celebrity billionaire Donald Trump to the top of the party’s 2016 presidential field — with a message that portrays Mexican illegal immigrants as violent criminals and warns that global rivals are “eating our lunch” — is a reminder that the Grand Old Party hasn’t settled the debates Kemp helped spark. As the pro-quarterback-turned-congressman predicted, the party of Abraham Lincoln has found itself increasingly hardpressed to win national elections relying almost entirely on the country’s declining percentage of white voters.
In the biography Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative
Who Changed America, journalists Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes describe Kemp as “the most important politician of the twentieth century who was not president, certainly the most influential Republican.” They acknowledge the point is arguable. (What about Democrats Hubert Humphrey and Edward M. Kennedy? Or Republican Barry Goldwater, whose electoral rout in 1964 paved the way for a conservative revolution?)
Kemp, who died in 2009 at age 73 after battling cancer, undeniably was a force whose energy and ebullience influenced the national debate and a series of Republicans who did become president. In the 1980 campaign, Kemp helped persuade Ronald Reagan to embrace supply-side economics. As secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he pressed the elder President Bush to put a priority on poverty, at times to the exasperation of the White House he served.
Kemp was aware that his passion for causes from supply-side economics to the gold standard tested the patience of others, among them Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, nominated for president in 1996. Even as his name was mentioned as a potential running mate, Kemp was confident that was never going to happen. “That man has more of a chance to be Dole’s vice president than I do,” he told me with a laugh in the CNN Green Room one day, pointing to footage being broadcast of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.
To the surprise of both men, a reluctant Dole did tap Kemp for a race they would lose to Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
This book by two unabashed fans of Kemp suffers from some of the same characteristics of the figure they profile. “Members of Congress sometimes hid to avoid his lectures and importuning,” they write. At times, the book drags.
Six years after his death, Kemp remains influential through the young acolytes he drew, among them Paul Ryan.
Kemp’s sunny persona, his willingness to engage with his critics and opponents and his belief in the power of policy to address the nation’s problems stand as a reminder of qualities that are sorely lacking in the politics of today in the country he adored.