In the Arena

Jack Kemp

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Kemp was a total blue-sky guy, which made him very likable, but not entirely credible as a politician. I covered both of his presidential campaigns, watched his unlikely alliance with Bob Dole–your classic thundercloud guy–in 1996, and spent more than a few hours talking about urban issues in his office.

He was a happy ideologue, a supply-sider nonpareil. He was the rare Republican who really cared about the poor and about people of other races–his athletic career had taught him the foolishness of racial bias–and he had some good ideas about how market incentives might be more effective than old-fashioned governmental responses in the inner cities. But his essential optimism blinded him to the limits of his ideology; he actually believed that tax cuts would always generate more revenue.

Kemp was, in a way, the John Edwards of the Republican Party–without Edwards’ personal problems, of course. Both were smooth and attractive, and not very rigorous when it came to policy. In 2005, the Council on Foreign Relations sent Kemp and Edwards to Russia to make a report and come back with recommendations. They made both…but somehow managed to come back without any recommendations on the most important issue: nuclear disarmament, the Nunn-Lugar program, which the Bush Administration had foolishly let lapse.

It was Kemp’s sunniness that I’ll remember most, and his essential decency. He was a very unlikely politician for the Republican Party, the diametric opposite of Dick Cheney. His passing is a reminder that if the GOP needs anything right now, it is more Jack and less Dick.