Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke have just published a
major biography of an iconic conservative figure entitled
Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed
Normally, I would pass on reviewing such a book because,
in full disclosure, one of the authors is a good friend and my
long-time editor at The Weekly Standard (where I have
contributed articles since 1997). Jack Kemp was also a friend
and policy mentor to me in the 1980s and 1990s.
The book, however, is so timely and I have enough first-hand
knowledge of part of the time frame of this book that I am
going to write about it anyway. My readers can assess any
bias I might display, but I think I can make some fair, and
hopefully useful, comments about both Kemp the person
and the book itself.
I did not know Jack Kemp in his early years as a famous
football quarterback, nor during his first years in Congress,
but I did meet him in the early 1980s when he was already a
conservative figure in Washington, DC.
As Barnes and Kondracke’s account relates, Kemp inspired
the formation of the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS)
group in the Republican house caucus. It was through one of
the leaders of that group, then-Minnesota Congressman Vin
Weber, that I met the congressman from Buffalo, New York.
Other members of COS included Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott
and Bob Walker. Kemp was its statesman and close to all its
members. Then-Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney remained
formally outside the group, but allied with its objectives and
I had originally been from Erie, PA. Its congressional district
was very much like Kemp’s ethnic blue collar Buffalo district.
(For this reason, Kemp was more sympathetic to Tom Ridge,
then Erie’s Republican congressman, than were most of the
more hard-line conservatives of COS.)
I was, at that time, transitioning from my boyhood liberalism
to a more centrist and non-partisan domestic political view,
and despite my undergraduate days at the Wharton School at the
University of Pennsylvania, my economic views were more
academic and theoretical than informed by the real world. I was
fortunate, then, to befriend Kemp, and I spent several hours during
his visits to Minnesota and my visits to Washington learning from
him about the notion of supply-side economics in his unique and
socially compassionate context. This was especially refreshing
to me who had previously assumed that conservatives were
somehow opposed to civil rights and indifferent to the poor.
Kemp had been a professional football quarterback with the
Buffalo Bills, and understood from daily experience on the field
how misguided racial prejudice was. He represented a blue
collar urban district, and he understood first-hand the concerns
and views of working men and women.
The juxtaposition of conservatism, compassion and pragmatic
economics was something new to me, and Kemp’s enthusiasm
and intelligence on these matters was not only appealing but
inspiring. This “supply-side economics” was to become, as
Barnes and Kondracke recount it, Jack Kemp’s lasting legacy in
My more liberal readers will now, I know, roll their eyes at the
mention of “supply-side economics,” having listened to and
read the propaganda from liberal economists that this policy
does not work, and has not ever worked. One of the premiums
of this biography is that its authors show incorrect this view is.
I might interject here what I have always understood (thanks
to Kemp) about the “supply-side” notion. Its critics say that
tax cuts, one of its main principles, do not work. But they leave
out the other and necessary part of a successful “supply-side”
equation, that is, the necessity for decreased public spending
to accompany the tax cuts. Although Presidents Reagan and
George W. Bush did cut taxes, they also did not always cut
federal spending. Their policies did ultimately produce
positive economic results, but were constrained by sometime
increased public spending (demanded by liberal congressional
Democrats). President Kennedy, a Democrat, also cut taxes
in 1962 with a positive ensuing result, as did President Clinton
at the end of his term (by adopting many of the supply-side
policies of Speaker Newt Gingrich and his caucus). Kennedy,
in particular, was by today’s standards a foreign policy hawk
and an economic conservative, but most Democrats, in their
myth-making about him, want to forget this.
Barnes and Kondracke’s book is much more than account of
economic theories. It offers detailed and very fair accounts,
carefully researched, of the key period from the early 1970s
through the 1990s when conservative economics (also espoused
by Ronald Reagan) changed the U.S. political environment.
Kemp was a overly-trusting generalist, an instinctive
“quarterback” on and off the field, and he made mistakes,
especially in later years when served as secretary of Housing
and Urban Development (HUD), and later in 1996 when he was
the GOP nominee for vice president on the ticket with Bob Dole.
In 1990, soon after President George H.W. Bush appointed him
to his cabinet as HUD secretary, I co-founded a non-partisan,
non-profit foundation to present national symposia to discuss
public policy issues. It was determined that the first symposium
would be about low-income housing, something I and my
co-founder had some experience with in the national “new town”
movement in Minnesota. We asked Kemp to be our keynote
speaker, and we invited numerous local and national liberal
low-income housing experts and advocates to participate in a
a dialogue with him. Kemp showed up with several of his top
HUD staff, and earnestly tried to talk about his HUD plans.
The truth be told, most of of those who did not share his
political views ignored or rebuffed his efforts for a genuine
and sympathetic dialogue. It was a lesson for me, who had
previously leaned center left, of the closed mind of many
liberal activists. It was also symptomatic of the many
obstacles that were put in Kemp’s way during his stewardship
at HUD where many of its own entrenched employees refused
to consider innovation an reform.
After HUD, Kemp co-founded the respected conservative think
tank Empower America and continued to try to influence policy
and politics. As with his earlier life, I had little contact with
Kemp in those final years, but I trust that Barnes and Kondracke
have given as balanced and accurate account of them as they did
of Kemp’s major period in public life when I knew him.
Jack Kemp was a warm but sometimes discrete figure, stubborn,
self-involved but also selfless, complicated, optimistic, unwilling
to attack his opponents, idealistic, and someone who conducted
his public life outside ideological stereotypes and political cliches.
He was Lincolnesque in his views about civil rights, and a leading
figure in the development of pragmatic free market economics.
He ran for president and vice president, but did not win higher
elective office than congressman. He held few titles, but his
influence went beyond his own time, as Barnes and Kondracke
point out, to our own time and probably beyond. This is a
valuable and informative book.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.