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

June 2024
17min read

A long-time Republican-party insider and close student of its past discusses how the party has changed over the years—for better and for worse —and where it may be headed.

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?

Very few people have really looked at Abraham Lincoln’s economics. But Professor Gabor Boritt of Gettysburg College has, and in his book Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream he notes that Lincoln hardly ever gave a speech in which he didn’t talk about the Declaration of Independence, never gave a speech in which he didn’t talk about upward mobility, about the desire of people to work and be able to save and hire someone to work for them and ultimately own their own business.

Entrepreneurial capitalism was Lincoln’s theme even though he didn’t call it that, and this whole sense of ownership, entrepreneurship, improvement, and upward mobility had a radical appeal to people. In a secular and political sense, it touched their innermost souls.

The core of the Republican party was this conviction that it should appeal to all people. With the Emancipation Proclamation and the Homesteading Act in 1862, then that same year the Morrill Land Grant College Act, the Republican party offered a combination of property ownership, entrepreneurial opportunity, educational opportunity, and the vision that any poor man in America should be able to own his own land and climb the ladder to what we call, loosely, the American dream.


So that was the party’s soul, and it was lost in 1932. Herbert Hoover caused irreparable damage. I am a fan of his humanitarianism and a fan of his integrity—but not of his economic policy. But about 1932 the electorate began to re-imagine the party of Lincoln as the party of the recession/depression.

It’s interesting: Clinton ran his whole campaign on the premise that we were experiencing the worst economic performance since Herbert Hoover. Now that is not true, but rhetorical excess aside, it was a good political attack on the Republican party. I believe the old Republican party saw the goal of American economic policy not as liberals do, as the construction of a safety net under which people should not be allowed to fall, but as the construction of a ladder of opportunity upon which people can climb. Yes, we need a safety net, but it should be a trampoline, not a trap. And right now it’s a trap. I think Mr. Lincoln would be turning over in his grave if he could know that his party is debating whether there should be a safety net or a ladder. We need both.

But the measure of the compassion of the party of Lincoln should not be how many people need help, but how many people do not need to be on government assistance because they’re now on that ladder of upward mobility that Lincoln called the desire to improve one’s lot in life.

But when you talk about the party of Lincoln, aren’t you up against bigger obstacles than Hoover? A lot of people believe that the New Deal coalition that was able to depict the Republicans as the party of depression was finally broken up by the race issue. Barry Goldwater’s rout in 1964 disguised the importance of the regional base he’d used to capture the nomination, and the swing of that base foreshadowed Nixon’s extremely successful Southern strategy. What about the role of race in realignment and the building of the eighties Republican majority?

First of all, as I said earlier, it used to be a sin to vote Democratic and be black. Preachers preached against the Democratic party: it was the party of the poll tax, the party of segregation and the Black Codes. After the Civil War it was against the law for blacks to own a business in the South. I think of how my father started a business in Los Angeles in the 1930s. He didn’t have to go to Sacramento, California, from Los Angeles and file a government application; he just started a business. The Republican party was by far the majority party among blacks. Now, that having been said, to think that George Bush and Republicans in the last election got only 10 percent of the black vote is a disgrace. People of color, be they Hispanic, or black, or Asian, want the same thing for their lives and their families as the vast majority of all families do.

Goldwater got tagged with a kind of exclusionary conservatism in 1964 because he voted against the civil rights bill with regard to public accommodations and housing. I don’t think Barry Goldwater is, or was, a racist. I think he cast the wrong vote. That’s easy to say as a Monday-morning quarterback. But there weren’t many conservatives on the side of the civil rights movement.

And I’m convinced that the civil rights movement was necessary. You don’t have to agree with every tactic, or everything that happened, to recognize that the civil rights movement in America was a necessary reform of our laws to bring us closer to the original meaning of our Declaration of Independence. I believe that, and I also think that we have suffered because of the failure of the party of Lincoln and conservatives—other than maybe Everett Dirksen and a few others—to preserve that legacy.

We should have been there with Dr. King on the streets of Atlanta and Montgomery.”

I’m sure there were many fine men and women in the Republican party all for civil rights, but the party was not associated with it. I give credit to the Democratic party for its role. I don’t necessarily agree with everything it did, but I recognize that some of the errors came out of championing civil, human, legal, and voting rights for all people. The Democrats had a terrible history, and they overcame it.

We had a great history, and we turned aside. We should have been there with Dr. King on the streets of Atlanta and Montgomery. We should have been there with John Lewis. We should have been there on the freedom marches and bus rides. We should have been there with Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955.

I don’t know if you’ve read Taylor Branch’s book Parting the Waters , but he makes it very clear that the failure of the 1960 Nixon campaign to express any public or personal sympathy with the plight of Dr. King when he was in prison for demonstrating on behalf of civil rights and Coretta Scott King—who was pregnant at the time, in October of 1960—coupled with John F. Kennedy’s making one phone call for maybe thirty seconds (thanks to Harris Wofford, for whom I have high regard and respect), may have cost us that election.

King’s father was a Republican. He gets up and says he’s gonna take up a suitcaseful of votes to John F. Kennedy, and every black pastor for the next two or three weeks was preaching Democratic party politics and John F. Kennedy. I’d always believed that it was Harris County, Texas, and Cook County, Illinois, that caused Nixon to lose so closely. Wrong, it was the fact that the black vote in America overwhelmingly went for Kennedy.

So I think the whole idea of Kevin Phillips’s Southern majority is a disgrace. You want the South, the North, the East, and the West. You want consensus, not coalitions, in my view. Politics is about consensus. Getting people above those things that divide them to a higher understanding of what would be good for the whole country, bringing the country together, and then finding common goals that people have and helping people achieve their goals. That’s ultimately the very best politics.


That really didn’t happen for us until Reagan in 1980. And it could have happened for George Bush, for whom I have high respect and regard. He started out in 1988 with tremendous goodwill in the black community, but it deteriorated, to a large degree because of the economy and the failure of the Congress to give him any inner-city economic agenda, as well as to help keep the macroeconomy growing and creating jobs.

I’m puzzled by your statement that George Bush had a great reservoir of goodwill in the black community, because the Willie Horton ad played such a conspicuous part in his 1988 campaign.

I think the uproar over the Horton thing was a farce and a product of liberal mythmaking. The press tells us that the only reason George Bush won in ’88 was Horton and this terrible campaign. First of all, it’s important to remember, from a historical perspective, that it was Al Gore in the New York primary who first focused on this issue. Time magazine elevated Horton and published a picture of him, and Gore picked up on it and ran against Dukakis in the New York primary partially on the Horton furlough.

It was subsequently picked up by some Republican conservatives, and it was run more as a soft-money and tangential part of the campaign by independent advertising than it was by George Bush. Bush did not, in my view, play up the Horton thing the way he could have. The issue had no necessary connection to race.

And that isn’t why George Bush won anyway. He won because (a) he was pledged to carry on the Reagan revolution, (b) the economy was doing well in ’88, and (c) he was very experienced. People should remember that in 1988 there were problems in foreign policy, and people wanted continuity. I think that one reason he won the primaries is that he was the most experienced person in the race with regard to the foreign policy issues, and he was trusted on the domestic issues because he was Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. And he pledged no new taxes. It was a good pledge for him to make; it was bad to break it.

You’re also known as the man who sought to implant a conservative economic populism in to the Republican party. Reagan made brilliant use of economic populism, but I believe he acknowledged that it was your great contribution to the Republican successes of the eighties. How did it work?

Well, conservatism had generally been predicated upon a negative idea. I was brought up to believe in Richard Weaver’s axiom that ideas have consequences, and the only way to replace an erroneous idea is with the power and truth of a correct idea. The purpose of politics is not to defeat your opponent as much as it is to provide superior leadership and better ideas than the opposition.


If you look at the Reagan presidential victories in juxtaposition with the 1976 primary campaign, which was very negative, you’ll find the 1980 campaign was very positive. He proposed to cut tax rates 30 percent across the board to get America moving again. He proposed not only to contain communism but to transcend communism, to launch a pro-freedom and prodemocratic foreign policy. He talked about breaking down barriers to trade and about the restoration of the White House as a bully pulpit from which to encourage traditional Judeo-Christian values and ideals. And so he moved the Republican conservative cause from an antithesis to a thesis.

By cutting tax rates to get America moving again and quoting John F. Kennedy all the time, and Calvin Coolidge at times, and Ludwig Erhard at times, he in effect drove the Democratic party from its thesis, which was that spending and finance by deficits were good for the economy. He forced the Democrats to become an antithesis party. All they could do was beat up on Ronald Reagan for wanting to cut tax rates. Remember Walter Heller’s saying it would cause triple-digit inflation or something like that? The Democratic party went crazy trying to deal with Reagan.

Reagan had a thesis, and it was positive, and it was populist. I think that is the most enormous contribution that Ronald Reagan made: his optimism, his positive application of entrepreneurial capitalist ideas and tax reform with spending limitations. You know, he’d been taught about balancing the budget, but growth came before the deficit to Ronald Reagan. So did the defense of America come before the deficit. As important as that deficit is, it’s single-entry bookkeeping, in my view, to look only at the deficit, as denominator, and not to look at the numerator: the size and growth of the economy.

The pro-internationalist foreign policy, the pro-free-trade policy, the pro-growth policy, the pro-traditional values and pro-family policies of Ronald Reagan really put the Democratic party on the defensive. And, unfortunately, today the Republican party is thinking less in terms of creating jobs and opportunity than the Democratic party is. Now Clinton may very well lose that edge because of the way he’s raising taxes on small businesses, Social Security recipients, families, and the middle class and by policies that inhibit the formation of capital, but at the moment, the American people think the Democratic party and Bill Clinton are more likely to create jobs than the populist wing of the Republican party is. And that’s a shame.

You just mentioned that the Republican party in the eighties was thought to be the party of free trade. Now this was a considerable departure from the party’s traditions. The Democrats were historically the free-trade party, and the Republicans were protectionists. What happened?

I don’t know that I would be as eloquent on this subject, or at least as articulate, as I like to think I am on some of the other issues. But the Republican party from Lincoln on, certainly through Hoover, was a protectionist party, a high-tariff party, notwithstanding the fact that Calvin Coolidge lowered tax rates in the 1920s and helped, in my view, to cause the great twenties boom. And I don’t think Calvin Coolidge would have ever signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. I was telling someone the other night that within six months of June 1930, when Hoover actually signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, a number of very unpleasant things happened. Within a week or two Europe retaliated, and the resulting trade war caused massive unemployment, and that massive unemployment helped lead to the triumph of fascism.

History will never be kind to the forces that kept Congress from attempting to stop Mussolini.”

We really didn’t learn our lesson, nor did Roosevelt, in the 1930s. There was a slight reduction of tariffs by the Democrats in 1938, 1939, if I remember correctly. In 1944 and 1945 at Bretton Woods the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the predecessor to the World Bank were formed. GATT [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] came in 1948. These were great contributions to liberalizing trade.

You have to give credit where credit is due, and that really was a function, at least in the environment it created, of the Roosevelt and the Truman administrations. Now, I don’t know that either one of them knew at all what they were specifically accomplishing, but it was a tremendous contribution to the world economy and certainly to the United States economy.

Kennedy had a huge tariff-reduction policy, and he was an internationalist. I don’t agree with everything he did, but I certainly respect his internationalism, because he was devoted to two things: Bretton Woods and maintaining the dollar as good as gold. In fact, he was very supportive of William McChesney Martin, who was the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and if you remember, the dollar was targeted to the price of gold. We kept it that way, and interest rates were low, the world system was working, more countries were coming into the GATT, and the IMF in those days was doing what it was supposed to be doing—that is, be a temporary window for countries with short-term exchange rate problems. It was not trying to run the economies of Russia, or Eastern Europe, or the Third World, or Latin America.

Richard Nixon decided on wage and price controls, raised tariffs, and devalued the dollar in 1972 for fear that the Japanese were going to overcome our advantage. Nixon and Connally thought the only way to compete with the Japanese was to engage in currency devaluation, which is now the modus operandi of the IMF. It really is. The IMF tells every country in the world, “Devalue your currency and raise taxes.” And we broke up Bretton Woods. The Smithsonian Agreement of 1971 ultimately led to the collapse of Bretton Woods in floating exchange rates, and Katy-bar-the-door. Every country has indulged in some form of mercantilistic trade practices since that time.


The oil shock didn’t trigger inflation. It was the inflation and the devaluation of the dollar and the easy money policies of the Nixon and Carter administrations that led to the incredible run-up of the price of not only oil but gold, which went from $35 an ounce to $65 an ounce, and by the end of the Carter administration it was more than $825 an ounce. Reagan should get credit not only for reducing runaway inflation, mortgage rates, and interest rates but for bringing some stability to exchange rates. We should also be thankful for the Reagan round of tariff reductions and his support for GATT.

Today I think the biggest threat to the world economy is the Clinton administration’s resort to policies coming out of Commerce under Ron Brown and probably from the special trade representative, Mickey Kantor, who believes that we need to level the playing field by putting tariffs on foreign imported steel and huge tariffs on mini-vans from Asia. And who knows where they’re going to strike next?

The jury’s out on what type of policy the Clinton administration is actually going to pursue for the next four years, but I think we’re headed toward a further erosion of the liberal trade policies that came out of World War II and that Ronald Reagan pursued.

Several times you’ve used the word internationalism to describe your ideal Republican party. Internationalism hasn’t always been the party’s banner. It was not in the thirties against Roosevelt—

To its everlasting discredit.

—and of course, Mr. Buchanan and his ilk are attempting to revive this part of the Republican heritage. Do you see this political tendency as an issue in American politics again?

Well, it’s certainly an issue in the Republican party: whether the Republican party should be the party of America first, last, and only and however else that may be played out. It would then again be the party associated with Charles Lindbergh and the extreme isolationists of the 1930s. This “come home America” fervor has until recently been more associated with the McGovern wing of the Democratic party—which had its own isolationist wing in the 1930s— and will forever live in infamy as part of our legacy. History will never be kind to the forces that kept the United States from attempting to stop Mussolini in Abyssinia in 1935 and 1936 and Hitler in the Rhineland and the Sudetenland.

Churchill called World War II the least necessary war of the twentieth century. Pat Buchanan is today probably the only leader in the Republican party who talks in the tones of that era, and I think he has to be engaged. And unfortunately it gets political, and it very quickly gets ad hominem . We see elements of this debate across the length and breadth of the party. Take our treatment of immigrants, for example. There are people who are asking, Why should the Republican party be open to immigration? There are points to be scored by being xenophobic about immigration. And on trade, the same thing. How do you treat Asia? How do you treat Mexico? How do you treat the North American Free Trade Zone? An internationalist foreign policy would be one that engaged Latin America and the Third World in trade. An isolationist policy would be very protectionist.


An internationalist would want to do something like what President Bush did in the Persian Gulf to stop Saddam Hussein. And if you remember, Buchanan and some other Republicans were very much opposed to that decision. To suggest that Israel or Jews in America were the only ones supporting the defense of Kuwait against aggression … I think that puts the party on the wrong side of history. And the same could be true of some of the discussion about blacks. Or poor people.

In the current climate you’re a strikingly libertarian Republican.

I have trouble with the word libertarian because I think it has been carried to such illogical extremes. Look, I don’t want to get into a fight with every person in the Republican party; I want to make that point. I’m not looking for enemies; I’m looking for moving the party up and onward. And I’m not libertarian on social issues. I think, however, that discussion of social issues has to remain civil. I think the ability to discuss and debate and dissect the issues without making people feel very uncomfortable about your liberality is the predicate of a liberal democracy.

The word liberal , I used to think, meant freedom and generosity and openness. I went to a liberal arts college. My mother was an educator and taught me to be liberal-minded. We’re talking now classical liberal. I’m very anxious to debate my side of the issues without losing friendships and losing other people. So if I am pro-family and pro-life, I want the debate to go forward on the sanctity of human life, the inalienable right to life, liberty, and property, and to be based on seeking alternatives to abortion, rather than suggest that anybody who disagrees with me somehow should be ruled out of my party, much less the country.

The statement was made at the Republican convention that those people who didn’t think like us were not part of the country. That was offensive to me. Some of this attitude comes from my football career; some of my very best friends are people who tried to knock my head off on the football field; they were my friends off the field. We’d beat the heck out of each other on Sunday, or try to. I wish political debates could take place in that type of arena, more Marquis of Queensberry rules than alley-cat rules. But unfortunately politics is all too often an alley fight, not something done out in the open, where people debate the issues fairly and let the American people judge.

So, I’m liberal on trade, liberal on civil rights, a classical liberal. I’m liberal on immigration. Liberal-minded. I don’t know that libertarian would be the best way to characterize it. I think that the Republican party has traditionally been liberal in this sense of the word.







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