A lot of people were much closer to Jack Kemp than I, but a lot more people did not know him as well as I did. Only a few remaining Americans can say what I can: “I was there at the beginning.”
Jack Kemp emerged on the national scene not in the political arena passing historic legislation, but on the gridiron field and into passing history. He was forged in a time when most Americans believed in and followed the Boy Scout Law. He played among those people, he lived among those people, and, eventually, he came to represent those people. I know. I was one of them.
Friends, conservatives and countrymen, I write not to bury Jack Kemp, but to praise him. But I mean to praise not just him, but the thousands of people who gladly accepted him as their congressmen. Perhaps this will expose some of the “whys” behind his character, explain his broad-based popularity and even hint of the blueprint for the inevitable resurgence of his party.
Many are familiar with his tales of standing up for the rights of minorities who played on his very integrated football teams, of representing his players union as president and, in general, of enduring the mental and physical anguish as a professional athlete that well prepared him for a political career. More revealing though, dwells what he may have learned from the community around him.
Kemp’s district lay within a rough, traditionally Democrat, blue-collar neighborhood. Remember the melting pot of America you once learned about in grade school? Those text books probably got their idea from this particular area just south of the city of Buffalo. It didn’t matter where you came from, though, because we, Americans all, helped each other as one common community. Ethnic groups from across the globe converged here to work in the steel plants. In Billy Joel’s song Allentown, he sang of teaching us “Iron and Coke, Chromium Steel.” Well, deep in the heart of the Bethlehem Steel Plant, the Woodlawn Elementary Schools taught its third and fourth graders exactly that. I know. I sat in those classes.
Like Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp didn’t rely on mere popularity to gain his office. He studied politics intensely even as he threw championship winning touchdown passes. By the time of his first election, Kemp possessed the keen eye an experienced political scientist. Ironically, his constituents may not have known this. Many, like me, pulled the lever for him on his inaugural run merely as a tribute to his on field performance. Of course, we knew he also lived the same ethic we lived, and that’s really why we voted for him.
As congressman, Kemp seemed a throwback. By today’s swine-laden standards, Kemp would get poor grades because he failed to bring home the bacon. However, by the standards of the Founding Fathers, Kemp rose as the epitome of a great congressman. He represented the ideals and aspirations of his constituency to build a better America. Some criticized him for focusing more on national issues than local pork, but Washington, Madison, Monroe, et al framed our country precisely with the intention that congressman prioritize national concerns, not local ones. Jack Kemp earnestly followed this principle.
From a city that peaked in the mid-twentieth century, he adopted the resilience of his neighbors. The resilience to survive when the Saint Lawrence Seaway destroyed the backbone of its grain elevator industry and signaled the end of its dominance as a rail center. The resilience to persevere when global realities caused the extinction of the American steel making dinosaurs who employed so many in his district. No one bailed out the grain elevator operators. No one bailed out the steel producers. The shareholders, workers and communities all suffered.
But the tough people who lived there never gave up.
Sure, many, like me, moved out of the district never to return. But the spirit of e pluribus unum never left us. With the increasing Balkanization of America slapping our core beliefs in the face, cheering for Jack Kemp as he ascended to the national spotlight offered relief from the occasional bouts of homesickness. We had faith in America. We knew, by working together, our country could survive any challenge. We knew. We lived it ourselves. Jack Kemp knew that, too.
That’s why some conservatives today consider him weak and some liberals consider him moderate. He was neither. Recall this self-described “bleeding-heart conservative” took on the very movement itself when it began to descend from the Reagan’s Shining City on the Hill into the abyss of villianization. He was uncomfortable hating the sinner not because of some wimpishness, but because he realized killing the sin was far more important. Yet, while he remained resilient, we too easily slid into the “fighting fire with fire” mode, which worked sporadically, but really grated against our soul. Would that we could return to what once was...
I recollect at moment in time I caught up to Jack Kemp. It was early in his national career. The intellectual conservatives had just started to become captivated, and Kemp had come to New Haven to receive recognition as a Chubb Fellow. In a room full of political scientists and economists, a nervous Kemp gave an eloquent, if restrained speech. The blue-collar jock appeared to feel strangely out of place amidst these high society intellectuals. I stood in the shadows deep in the back of the hall.
Afterwards, I strolled to the podium to speak to Kemp. While the others adoringly imbibed his every syllable, I detected a slight awkwardness in his demeanor – a cross between “I really hope they like me” and “What am I doing here?” With each new question one could see in his eyes the fear he might offer a wrong answer. Then I popped in front of him. The weight on his shoulders now painfully visible on his taut face, he looked at me as though I would be the one to finally break him.
“Hi,” I began cheerfully, “would you mind signing this?” and I pulled out his 1964 Topps football card.
He grew an instant smile, the onus lifted permanently from him as he returned to an earlier, more innocent, era of his life. “Who is this freckled face kid?” he laughed and joyfully signed.
We spoke at length and the fawning crowd gathered again to hear him confidently regale us with stories of pigskin intrigue. It was only then I realized this crowd of super-brains, too, cowered before him, just as concerned about Jack Kemp discovering their own shortcomings. His friendly voice now eased them of their self-imposed tension.
And so now that voice falls silent.
And the silence causes us to reflect. When did we start hating the opposition? Why do we so readily paint them as villains? Can we once more summon the inner discipline to withstand the ad hominem attacks against us and, instead, respond vociferously and pointedly to the issues? After all, don’t we just want to eradicate the sin and save the sinner?
What simple picture could be help us return to an earlier, more innocent, era of our lives and our movement?