“We Had a Great History, and We Turned Aside”


Jack Kemp was born in 1935 in Los Angeles; his father owned a small trucking company. He came of political age in a time and place that made it likely enough that he would become a lifelong Republican, and he did. But the kind of Republican Jack Kemp became defies stereotype.

Prosperous Southern Californian Republicans do not normally become professional football players, but Kemp was for nine years the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. Nor do they normally found trade unions, but Kemp co-founded the American Football League Players Association in 1965. He became a special assistant to then Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967, won election to Congress in 1970, and was continuously re-elected until becoming Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1989. By then an observer might have thought that the young fellow whose dad had owned the trucking company was simply getting back on track. However, the genuinely odd portion of Jack Kemp’s odyssey was yet to come.

Entrepreneurial capitalism was Lincoln’s theme even though he didn’t call it that.”

Kemp was a central figure in the process whereby a Republican party long associated with three-piece suits and country clubs was reborn in 1980 as an exuberantly populist political movement. He was a political and cultural predecessor to Reagan, and he has at times seemed his only possible authentic successor. In the mid-seventies, in the teeth of Jimmy Carter’s asceticism, Kemp jauntily insisted on America as a cornucopia—in this, as in many other things, prefiguring Reagan’s political appeal. He always took Reagan’s posture as a spokesperson for Everyman very seriously, and he has at times seemed the only leading Republican deeply committed to confronting matters of race and poverty. When the country-club Republicans seemed to slip back into power in 1988, Kemp was not a particularly compatible figure. He appeared to be taken into the cabinet as a kind of tribute to high Reaganism.

When South-Central Los Angeles went up in the aftermath of the first Rodney King trial, however, the Bush administration suddenly needed to put forward someone with a genuine interest in the urban poor, and after years in the administration’s shadows, Kemp was on display for a few months. He was then pushed back out of the limelight; Bush lost the 1992 election; and the soul of the Republican party again went up for grabs.

Jack Kemp is not only committed to what he considers to be the historic values of the party; he is also an especially close student of the history of the party—of how those values shaped it and how, in turn, they and the party have kept changing over time. I talked to him recently about the evolution of the party he has so altered, and for whose soul he now contends.

You’re well known to be a Republican very interested in making his party again the party of Lincoln. But isn’t this a rather tall order? After all, many analysts explain the party’s majorities since the late sixties as an outcome of racial polarization.


Well, as most scholars and politicians know, the Republican party grew out of a combination of several splinter groups in the United States. It was founded as an amalgamation of the Free-Soilers, Whigs, Democrats, liberals, abolitionists, and the Know-Nothing party (they have some carry-over in the party today) and guided by a vision that the promise of freedom and equality of opportunity in America’s Declaration of Independence applied to all men. All people. For all time. And ultimately extended to all countries.

Lincoln—before his inauguration, I think it was in Philadelphia when he was being guarded so closely for fear of attempts on his life—said that he would rather be assassinated on that spot than sacrifice his belief that the Declaration of Independence was true for all people. That is, I think, the most eloquent and passionate defense of the Declaration other than Thomas Jefferson’s.

So Lincoln’s party—the Republican party—was attractive to people who down through the ages believed in equality of opportunity, the inalienable right to life, liberty, and property, to the pursuit of happiness, and these rights’ applicability to all people. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the capital that the Republican party had built up in the black community was overflowing.

First of all, it was a sin to be a Democrat if you were black; the Republican party was by far the most popular, as well as the most populist, political party. It was the party of Lincoln. It was the party of equal opportunity, the party that appealed to people not on the basis of color but on the basis of their desire to improve their lot in life.

But what did it actually offer its followers beyond the memory of a martyred President?