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Mark Shields: Why Jack Kemp Was Truly Special

Integrity, family values put him a notch above the everyday public servant

In my line of work you hear a lot of politicians — many whose private conduct fails to match their public posturing — declaim about their unyielding commitment to “family values.” Then you cover Jack Kemp.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Don’t get me wrong. I am not here to canonize Kemp. I am sure he, like all of us, was imperfect. But as one who has been convinced over a lifetime of campaigns that a politician’s personal integrity counts for a lot more than his public ideology, I want to tell you a story about Kemp, the former Republican congressman, Cabinet officer and vice presidential nominee, who died too soon May 2 at age 73.

Here it is. In his campaign for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, undoubtedly his best chance to win the White House, Kemp paid more than lip service to family values. Much to the frequent consternation of his campaign staff, he was more devoted parent than determined candidate.

On all but two fall weekends before the crucial Iowa and New Hampshire contests, Kemp left the campaign trail to return home to suburban Maryland to see his son, Jimmy, play quarterback for the Churchill High School Bulldogs. Charlie Black, his 1988 campaign manager, acknowledged that Kemp’s paternal priorities “could sometimes make candidate scheduling difficult.”

But you can be sure that Jimmy Kemp remembers well his father making that choice. By contrast, Michael Reagan, whose father twice won presidential landslide victories, was an all-state high school quarterback who never once experienced that thrill of having his father see him play.

Black and Jeff Bell, national campaign coordinator of the 1988 campaign, each emphasized Kemp’s often-stated belief: “We must be the party of Lincoln.” That meant always standing up for the civil rights of all Americans, even if it meant alienating Republican primary voters on a divisive issue like immigration.

In 1994, when California Republicans pushed Proposition 187, the ballot measure that would have denied all public services, including public school education and emergency room treatment, to undocumented immigrants, Kemp returned to his native Golden State and took a lonely stand against the anti-immigrant forces, making the case that immigrants with their “strong family values” ought to be “natural Republicans.”

Before Kemp, political conservatives in the United States were a mostly grumpy, almost dyspeptic, lot. With their constant frowns and predictions of doom and gloom, they often looked as if their shorts were too tight. Jack Kemp — and, yes, Ronald Reagan — put a smiling face on American conservatism.

Launching the campaign that would win for him the presidency in 1980, Reagan was already a certified optimist, but without a positive domestic platform. Kemp gave “The Gipper” and Republicans the campaign platform he so effectively advocated: economic growth and national prosperity through a 30 percent, across-the-board tax cut over three years. Kemp was both the architect and the engineer of the Reagan Revolution.

But Kemp was much more. Like Democrat Hubert Humphrey, also a fountain of ideas and an endless source of hopefulness, Jack had no political enemies — just converts in waiting. To disagree on an issue with him was to guarantee you would get the Jack Kemp treatment — a friendly arm around your shoulder, a customized reading list, and specific emphasis on where you and he already agreed.

Kemp fought a lonesome — especially on his side of the aisle — battle for full voting representation in Congress for the 600,000 Americans who lived in Washington, D.C. For him, Social Security was ” the bedrock of retirement security.” He unflinchingly supported open housing.

Like sports, political campaigns do not build character as much as they reveal character. When Kemp chose to attend his son’s high school games instead of campaigning before one more Rotary Club in Des Moines, Iowa, or Manchester, N.H., he revealed his true character.

Thank you, Jack.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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