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Jack Kemp, RIP

It seemed as if Jack Kemp was capable of only one speed: enthusiasm. He was as sunny and ebullient a politician as we have produced. Before anyone was talking much about compassionate conservatism, Kemp insisted that conservatives not only needed to show that they cared about the poor, particularly African Americans. He believed, devoutly, that conservatives had to be engaged with the marginalized and the left-out as a matter of principle and obligation.

Politics in recent years has often been a breeding ground for hatred. Kemp was the opposite of a hater. He was all positive energy. If there was one thing he did hate, it was racism. Over and over, he tried to get his party to reach out to African Americans -- not simply the more affluent in their ranks, but the very poor whom he really did believe would benefit from policies geared toward enterprise, including supply side tax cuts, enterprise zones and tenant ownership of public housing. He was serious about this mission when he served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

I got to know Kemp when I covered his ill-fated 1988 presidential campaign. I couldn't help but appreciate a politician who really did believe what he said and thought politics should be about ideas -- and that it should be fun.

Kemp and I profoundly disagreed on those tax cuts for the rich, as I would call them, or those marginal rate cuts, as he would call them. I thought, and still think, that supply side economics didn't work and that supply side theory was simply a rationalization for giving wealthy people tax cuts. Kemp believed with everything in him that we should cut taxes on "work, savings and investment." Over and over, he would say: If you lower taxes on the things you want, you'll get more of them.

I've regularly criticized supply side thinking, and I would periodically get scolding notes from Kemp wondering why I didn't see the light. But his scolding was in keeping with his character: those notes were always friendly, warm, hopeful. Kemp truly believed in his capacity to preach and persuade. He wanted everyone to come around. He never persuaded me, but he did convince me that he was a superb human being. Those who disagreed with him will miss him at least as much as those whose ideas he championed.

By E.J. Dionne  | May 3, 2009; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Next: Ideas -- and Jack Kemp


When in the heat of the argument, we call the other's position 'insane', we tend to forget what is really insane in contemporary politics: to deny the other her or his sincerity, to imply all kinds of sinister machinations, to call into question their patriotism, or - ahem - to doubt their mental capacities. I for one am craving for conservatives of the stature of Jack Kemp's, and I very much hope that he would serve as a role model for curent and future - not only Republican - U.S. politicians.
As a 'socialist' in the eyes of many conservatives, I salute a great American.

Posted by: AugoKnoke | May 4, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

Nice tribute, Dionne. Political disagreements should be put aside in tribute to death, and you have done that. I just hope those posting on the Gerson piece on the other page will use their time contributing to society like Mr. Kemp did, outside of Politics. He did so much for inter-city disadvantaged and never asked their party affiliation. RIP, Mr. Kemp

Posted by: gsms69 | May 4, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Jack Kemp seemed to be the last Republican in the mold of Reagan, at least in terms of temperament and humor.

As with Dionne, I have my problems with the GOP position on taxes and other issues. But if anyone could have persuaded me to his side, it would have been Kemp.

Posted by: EnemyOfTheState | May 4, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for this tribute to an honorable man, a public servant with strong convictions.

Posted by: sberentson | May 4, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

Kemp was a man's man and knew how to lead. Although, I'm glad to see Dionne never took the fools gold of the tax cuts on the rich. Those that put their ass on the line to create opportunities for others should not be taken care of by the Govt. They should be struck down and put in their place. Damn rich folks.

Posted by: TheDubb | May 4, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

A wonderful remembrance - it seems that Jack Kemp believed that if the successful members of society remembered that the fruits of their success should nourish the much less successful, we would all benefit. If conservatism can be justified, that would be its justification.

Instead, we have the likes of Rove, Cheney, Bush, Boehner, McConnell, Bachman, Coulter and Limbaugh. These worthies should reflect on Jack Kemp's commitments, and be profoundly ashamed of themselves.

Posted by: dicka1 | May 4, 2009 8:53 PM | Report abuse

One less republican!

All this BS about Kemp's "bleeding heart" is so much eyewash!

Glad he's dead and anxiously awaiting the next GOP croaker!

Posted by: kase | May 5, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

To Kase: This is way out of line. We do not defeat our enemies by becoming them. Refute the ideas, not the man.

Posted by: jsenft1 | May 5, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

To jsenft1-

No need to defeat an enemy if he's already dead.

Still anxiously waiting...

Posted by: kase | May 5, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Kemp was a decent guy, even if he was a bit stuck on disproven "trickle down" Reaganomics. It's a shame there is so little decency left in today's Republican Party.

Posted by: PaulG2 | May 6, 2009 2:08 AM | Report abuse

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