The Right Signals

By David S. Broder
Wednesday, May 6, 2009; 6:27 PM

[Editor's Note: This column was originally published on Sept. 2, 1986. David Broder today has an appreciation of Jack Kemp, who died last Saturday.]

When Hubert H. Humphrey died in 1978, he left a namesake, Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III, in Minnesota politics, and a protege, Walter F. Mondale, in presidential politics. But the man who most resembles Humphrey in spirit, style and scope is a figure as far to the right of center as Humphrey was to the left -- Rep. Jack Kemp of New York.

Long-winded, gregarious, super-energetic, overscheduled, optimistic, in love with ideas and people, ranging unconfined from issue to issue, an outsider who became part of the political establishment almost despite himself, a partisan battler who hates to hurt anyone's feelings -- all these describe both Humphrey and Kemp.

Throw in that in their times, both used Congress as a sounding board for "radical" causes they promoted so assiduously across the land that eventually these ideas became law. Add that both were consumed by thoughts of the presidency long before they sought the office. That is why Kemp's friend and admirer, Rep. Vin Weber, who grew up in Minnesota when Humphrey dominated its politics, says of Kemp: "In many ways, he's the Happy Warrior."

That was the Al Smith label Humphrey borrowed for himself in his ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign. Many on Capitol Hill think that Kemp, a likely 1988 Republican presidential contender, may -- like Humphrey -- be more successful shaping national policy than in reaching the White House. But Weber (R-Minn.), who shares Kemp's conservative views, was making a different point: "Just like Hubert, Jack thinks his mission is to provide a vision that converts the whole country."

Humphrey rose with the liberal tide that his own fertile policy mind and inexhaustible energy helped to feed. Kemp has had a similar role in the conservative movement of the past decade. He came to the House in 1971, a 34-year-old pro football quarterback with the San Diego Chargers and later the Buffalo Bills, whose only political background was some off-season staff time with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California. The House had seen hot-shot jocks before, and while Kemp's friendliness quickly won him admission to such inner-circle GOP groups as the Chowder and Marching Society, nothing in the Nixon-Ford years marked him as anything but another minority-party backbencher.

By 1978, however, the Buffalo congressman -- with little seniority, no leadership position, not even a committee jurisdiction to exploit -- had pulled off one of the toughest tricks in American politics: He had moved a novel idea onto the national agenda and into the center of policy debate. The idea, of course, was "supply-side economics," keyed to a deep, across-the-board cut in tax rates. It became the unifying theme of the 1978 midterm Republican campaign, the keystone of Reagan's 1980 presidential bid and the heart of the 1981 "Reaganomics" legislative program.

Some blame that tax cut for the massive federal deficits of the past five years, but Kemp, the fervent apostle, has not abandoned the faith. "I'm not arguing that deficits are benign," he said recently, "but the economy has doubled in the last five years. No one would want to go back to the Carter economy, even if deficits were lower then."

Since 1981, Kemp has juggled a welter of overlapping and sometimes conflicting roles: a member of the House Republican leadership but a friend and adviser to the cadre of young conservative House "bomb-throwers," often impatient with the leadership's pragmatic tactics; a protege and political follower of Reagan, but a free-lance critic of some administration economic and defense/diplomatic decisions; a man whose 1988 presidential hopes may well rest on support from the most right-wing elements in the GOP, but a tactician/idealist who delights in making common cause with some of the most liberal House Democrats, especially blacks and Hispanics, on urban issues.

The House is not notably tolerant of loquacious, ambitious members who don't spend much time on nitty-gritty legislating or hob-nobbing and who refuse to be bound by its conventions and structures. Yet dozens of interviews with Kemp's colleagues found almost none who dismiss him as insignificant. Like Humphrey before him, Kemp has made himself someone to be taken seriously.

"Jack has an enormous capacity for hard work, and I don't know of anything that would disqualify him from being a serious presidential candidate . . . . He's like Ronald Reagan in many respects. He holds strong views, without personal animosity and some would say without flexibility. But you move policy by strong adherence to your views. Jack is not a tinkerer." -- Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.), a liberal who often has opposed Kemp on issues before their Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations

"He doesn't seem to listen. That may be the burden of a quick mind. It's an acquired skill to sit and listen to things you already know, and Jack is impatient. He's almost hyperkinetic. Jack is a hard person to get close to. He has his own agenda. I suppose if you wanted to carry his luggage, it would be all right." -- Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a conservative who often has been with Kemp on defense, foreign policy and social issue fights

Colleagues' judgments on Kemp obviously do not follow predictable partisan or ideological lines. He is not liked by many of the senior Republicans in the House, who grow impatient during his monologues and resent his readiness to follow his own inclinations rather than the party line. One former White House official who attended Republican congressional leadership meetings with President Reagan during the first term recalls "the pained expressions on everyone's faces when Jack would launch into one of his lectures." House Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), probably Kemp's closest friend in the leadership, said that he sits next to Kemp at those meetings and often "I bump his knee when he's gone on too long . . . . But he's relentless. He just grinds them down."

On the other hand, Kemp is cherished by people from the opposite side of the spectrum -- either because they enjoy him as an aggressive adversary who disdains cheap-shot tactics or because they find him an unexpected ally.

Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.) is one of the latter. He tells the story: "In 1980, when Luis Munoz Marin [the former governor of Puerto Rico] died, I put together a resolution honoring him. When we were debating it, this guy Kemp jumps up on the other side of the aisle. At the time, I considered him to be one of the extreme right-wingers, and all of a sudden, he's talking about Munoz and Operation Bootstrap, and he really knew a lot about him. I went over to thank him for it, and then, about a week later, I read a piece in The Post about enterprise zones, and again, it was this guy Kemp. I got a copy of the bill [providing tax breaks and other incentives for firms to locate or expand in high-unemployment, center-city areas] and saw it was not a bad idea.

"So we got together, and we became the odd couple. He came to my district in the South Bronx and Time and Newsweek got interested . . . . Then he worked very hard to get Bill Gray [the black congressman from Philadelphia] as a cosponsor, and I was fascinated because I didn't think Republicans were concerned about minorities."

The enterprise zone bill is still not law, in large part because most House Democratic leaders and many Reagan aides are plainly unenthusiastic about any project bearing Kemp's name. But Kemp loves the odd-couple alliances. He has hooked up with District of Columbia Delegate Walter E. Fauntroy (D), an ally of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, on legislation to allow public housing tenants to manage their projects and to buy their homes. He has wooed Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a self-styled populist, to cosponsor some of his legislation aimed at curbing the independence of the Federal Reserve Board and forcing an easier-money policy.

No Republican is better-liked by members of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus. Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.), its former chairman, says, "I have seen Jack move from being a criticizer to someone who really tries to reconcile differences. He's worked with me on the Ethiopian situation and has been very constructive on African aid. He is sensitive to the concerns of black members of Congress."

Kemp, who grew up in comfortable middle-class surroundings in California, came to politics from an athletic environment where blacks and whites were teammates and where social distinctions lost their significance in the competitive arena. "I was captain of every team I played for," he said in an interview, "so I had a sense of activism. Coming to Congress, I was not bound by tradition. I wasn't going to allow myself to be put in a box."

That personal instinct is linked in Kemp's mind to two political principles -- one showing his similarity to Reagan and the other highlighting their differences. "I think there is something in the American psyche," Kemp said, "that loves to think that these problems between the two parties are not of such proportions that you can't work together. That's one reason a lot of Democrats like Reagan."

But Kemp is more radical in his thinking and his tactics than Reagan. Reagan has courted and often won support from conservative Democrats. Kemp consciously jumps to the far end of the spectrum in his search for allies.

"It doesn't make any sense to go to Boll Weevils, with all due respect," Kemp said, referring to right-leaning Democrats. "I like them all . . . but if you really want to influence the system, you've got to disrupt its pattern of conduct and behavior . . . and the way to do that is to move beyond the traditional model."

"I basically have a vision for the world and the country that is bigger than what I see coming out of other parts of the Washington political establishment. I think the potential of this country and our people is unlimited. I think that the Declaration of Independence was not written for white folks but for all folks, not just for one time in history but for all times, and not just for our continent but for all continents. And I think these ideas that we are talking about need to be advanced." -- Jack Kemp in a recent interview

When Kemp talks about altering conduct by moving beyond the traditional model, he is not just theorizing. It is something he has done. He came to Congress "much more of a balance-the-budget-at-all-costs Republican than I am today," he said; "more of a fight-government-at-all-costs conservative than the use-government-where-you-can conservative" he sees himself now. The story of Kemp's intellectual conversion to supply-side economics in the mid-'70s by journalist/polemicists Jude Wanniski, Irving Kristol and Robert Bartley and their economic gurus, Arthur Laffer and Robert Mundell, has been told many times. They found him a more willing pupil, a more assiduous reader than anyone else on Capitol Hill.

A longtime staff member says, "Jack has a mind like a sponge, a childlike interest in philosophy and ideas . . . . And then he's relentless when he's got an idea." Just where this fixation with ideas comes from is hard even for Kemp to explain. He was an indifferent scholar at Occidental College, where he established his quarterbacking credentials. As a pro, he found himself "kind of a clubhouse lawyer," he said. "I helped organize the American Football League players union" and became its president. He started reading economics while a football player and during off-season jobs with The San Diego Union and with Reagan. And Kemp adopted as his maxim the title of a book by Richard Weaver, a wispy University of Chicago English teacher, that is an underground-conservative classic: "Ideas Have Consequences."

Kemp has pushed his ideas as aggressively as he quarterbacked. John eller, another staff member, says, "He knows that anything important will be controversial, so he's prepared to take it to the people and argue it. He's a person who puts pressure on the system from the outside; he's not an inside player."

As with Reagan, Kemp's main tool of political leadership is speech-making. But his style is Humphrey- esque: emotional, uplifting, passionate, pedantic, prescriptive -- and long. He has taken his message not only to hundreds of Republican campaign rallies and fund-raisers but to union halls and black churches. Still, it is clear that Kemp wants more than applause; he craves influence on the inside and covets the good opinion of his colleagues.

When Kemp -- who was never a member of the Ways and Means Committee -- started his public campaign for radically lowering tax rates, the Republican from his neighboring district, Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr., was the ranking minority member of the tax-writing panel and its intellectual-political linchpin. As Kemp said in a recent interview, Conable made it plain early that "it was very disconcerting to have this radical populist Republican from Buffalo talking about tax policy."

Much later, Kemp said, Conable told him that pressing for lower marginal tax rates was not as "goofy" as he had first thought, "and it made me feel so good -- here's the most respected legislator telling a back- bencher he appreciated what I helped start. That was as thrilling to me as any honor I've had in the Congress."

Conable, now president of the World Bank, said he "cannot recall the specific conversation" Kemp found so moving, but conceded that he moved from initial skepticism to eventual support of the 1981 tax-cut bill. Then he added: "I was always supportive of Jack, though our personal relationship was difficult. Jack is so competitive that any degree of disagreement seems to him to smack of personal dislike. I'm glad he no longer sees it that way."

"Jack is so intense. He's like a pit bull that won't let go when he gets a grip . . . and then the next day he'll come up and say, 'Did I push too hard? Did I hurt someone's feelings?' Early on, he drove me crazy, but I've come to respect him more and more." -- Rep. Lynn M. Martin (R-Ill.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference and political ally of Vice President Bush

"I disagree on so many things, but I find him a decent guy . . . . His vision is very different from other Republicans. He's truly egalitarian in the personal sense. He's the only Republican out there fighting for the Springsteen constituency." -- Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), a liberal colleague on the Budget Committee

Ex-quarterback Kemp thrives on pressure situations but he is squeamish about some subjects, including the right-to-life issue. Critics ascribe his activism on this front to political opportunism, but his friends attribute it to his religious views and the important influence of his wife, Joanne.

In an interview, Kemp said, "It's a deeply felt family view. To me, the essence of a Judeo-Christian society is that life is precious. I have four children and a grandchild. My wife and I lost a child . . . a pregnancy that had gone on for six months. The child was born perfect in every way except the lungs were not fully developed. It lived -- the child lived -- for two or three days. Then it just couldn't make it. [Yet] in New York state those [fetuses of that age] could have been aborted."

Kemp has fought to bar federal funding to either family planning groups here or population control programs abroad that provide abortion services. He has had mixed success, but has pushed hard enough that the Planned Parenthood Federation included him, along with Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), in full-page ads as "three politicians out to destroy our nation's family planning program."

Kemp said he was "deeply hurt by the attack," because "my wife and I planned our family . . . [and] I support family planning domestically and internationally . . . . I just don't think that abortion should be used as a birth control device."

Kemp does not disagree with his friend, Vin Weber, a strong right-to-lifer, who observed: "He's philosoph- ically more committed to the conservative position on social issues than Ronald Reagan, but he never wants people to feel uncomfortable. When he comes to an issue that is divisive, his first instinct is to step back."

Told this, Kemp said, "I'm comfortable enough with my position on the issue, but I'm uncomfortable with the emotion it engenders . . . . I'm uncomfortable having my position equated with bombing of abortion clinics. I don't believe in that . . . . It's a very disagreeable debate. I'm uncomfortable with the prayer in school debate . . . . People say, 'Well, maybe you're not tough enough,' but I don't think it has anything to do with macho politics. I think I've advanced my views with compassion and tolerance."

Soon after the 1980 election, Kemp decided it was time to come in from the cold and join the House Republican establishment. He won the vacant No. 3 leadership post as chairman of the House Republican Conference, beating another conservative by 30 votes. "It was important for me," he said, "to stop being a bomb-thrower, or an idea-thrower . . . . The things I had been fighting for were in the Reagan agenda. Now it was important for me to come in and be on the team and help move it into reality."

Team-playing has proved hard for Kemp when someone else is calling the signals. In 1981, when Kemp's tax-cut plan was the center of "Reaganomics," it worked smoothly. "I was inextricably linked to the policy and I didn't need to challenge anybody or anything," he said. But by 1982, he had fallen out with his friend David A. Stockman, the budget director, and he opposed the tax hike that Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) started and Reagan eventually embraced. The disagreements have widened now to include some aspects of Central American and U.S.-Soviet policy. As Kemp said, "I'm not quite the insider any more . . . . The closer we get to '88, the more people [at the White House] say, 'Why is he doing that?' or 'How do we keep him from doing that?' "

Still, he maintains a close relationship, not only with the "hard-liners" at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department, but with Deputy Treasury Secretary Richard G. Darman, a moderate pragmatist who takes both Kemp and his ideas seriously. At a crucial juncture of the 1985 budget battle, Kemp and Trent Lott brought Bill Gray, the Democrat who heads Budget Committee, together with White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan to negotiate a deal, much to the aggravation of Dole and other Republican senators.

And at a point last December when the version of the tax-revision bill drafted by Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and other Ways and Means Committee Democrats faced likely defeat on the House floor because of determined Republican opposition, Kemp took a major political risk to keep it alive. His closest friends both in the party leadership and the young conservative cadres were furious that Rostenkowski had cut them out of the deal-making and had produced a bill with higher personal tax rates and stiffer corporate tax hikes than they thought justified. They wanted to strangle the infant at birth, rather than risk what it might become.

But Kemp, believing that the dream of still-lower marginal individual tax rates could be salvaged, arranged an 11th-hour agreement with the president that allowed the measure to scrape through.

That crisis tested his temperament and his political relationships more severely than anything else in his House service.

"I was so [angry with] him I could hardly talk to him," said Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a Kemp disciple and supporter. "He tried to say to us for six weeks that he had so much invested in it [the flat-tax bill] that he couldn't allow George Bush to say that Jack Kemp had scuttled tax reform. In the end, Jack did exactly what he had to do, and we are friends again. In a politician pettier than Jack, the differences would have been fatal."

The day the tax bill was being debated, Kemp turned over the chairmanship of the Republican Conference to Lynn Martin and listened as speaker after speaker berated him for breaking the party line. "I must admit I took it personally when some of my best friends ripped me apart," he now says, "but I have no grudges."

Asked what he did in response, Kemp said: "a combination of begging and cajoling and pleading and praying and getting [angry]. I'd go to them and shake them by the lapels and say, 'Don't you realize how big this is? Don't give this away to the Democrats. This is a historic moment.' "

Today, with the measure heading for final passage and Republicans proclaiming it the greatest achievement of Reagan's second term, even those who opposed Kemp angrily at the time concede that his judgment has been vindicated.

"Like all quarterbacks, Jack thinks people on his side ought to do what he says." -- Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), a fellow conservative

Among Kemp's friends and allies, the matter of his talking -- not listening -- is so universal an experience that they half-kiddingly offer their own strategies for getting him to slow down and pay heed. Vin Weber says, "I mention to Jack that Bush's PAC has just sent me a contribution and there's something I need to discuss with him." Bob Garcia says, "I don't fool around. I ask him, 'Jack, what's your attention span today? One minute? Thirty-five seconds? Tell me what I have.' "

But it is no joke when they weigh his qualifications for president -- or when he talks about it himself. "It's a fair criticism," Kemp says. "A good leader must listen -- definitely.

"There's been a sense of urgency with which I've approached the issues that I'm sure has trespassed on some of the amenities of the day . . . . To tell you the truth, I have for a long time thought of myself as a prodder, as a catalyst, as a lightning rod, as a political entrepreneur, someone who would rather shake up the conventional thinking in order to advance an idea.

"When I was quarterback, I can remember saying that quarterbacking was not listening to people in the stands -- or even coaches. It was getting a play called and telling people in the huddle to be quiet, and taking them down the field -- doing what you thought best and either succeeding or failing.

"But political leadership is different. It is listening, and it is trying to take people where they want to go, as opposed to where you think they ought to go. Presidential leadership is the ultimate test, in trying to find out where a country wants to go and advancing the ideas that will get it there. That's a lot different than being the quarterback of a football team or the architect of a bold new political idea."

Jack Kemp recognizes the difference. The question now is whether he can change his play.

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