Penn Kemble died this month of brain cancer at age 64, after a courageous struggle. He was a dedicated, central figure in the quite remarkable expansion of democratic views and values we have witnessed in recent years.
In his 20s, Penn was national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League (the “Yipsels.”) and its parent group the Socialist Party, later the Social Democrats U.S.A. (SDUSA).
On Oct. 1, there was an all-day session, organized by Penn, ostensibly about renowned philosopher and social democrat Sidney Hook, but with tributes to Penn, who heard them over an open line to his home in Georgetown. I was privileged to be asked to deliver one such tribute. Here are some excerpts:
“I want to begin with a confession I Googled Penn. There were 29,600 entries with his name in it. We will come to that later.
“I first met Penn Kemble in 1972. I figured I knew all about politics and democracy. After all, I had worked on President Johnson’s staff, worked for Scoop Jackson’s presidential campaigns and, with psephologist Richard Scammon, co-authored an important book on American politics. I was very impressed with me.
“As it turned out I didn’t know beans. As the huge magnitude of George McGovern’s pending electoral defeat became clear, as it became clear that far-left McGovernites would be calling the shots for the Democratic Party, Scammon suggested ‘a new ADA’ be formed. (The once-sensible Americans for Democratic Action had been following McGovern over the cliff.)
“The new organization was to be called the ‘Coalition for a Democratic Majority’ — CDM. All involved agreed that young Penn Kemble should be the first executive director. It was a ‘coalition’ — and support from the labor movement was critical.
“Penn had credibility in George Meany’s House of Labor. How so? He had already worked on projects in concert with Big Labor. Most important, at a tender age Penn had already learned, or perhaps designed, the big secret: that the Yipsels planned to take over the world in a blizzard of letterheads. (I teased Penn about that, but he was profoundly right.)
“So all through the summer and early fall of 1972, a troop of counterrevolutionaries met furtively in a proletarian hideout at the old Federal City Club. It had to be kept secret: We couldn’t be blamed for the Democratic catastrophe that we knew was coming. And so, under Penn’s guidance one more letterhead organization was born. We planned full-page advertisements for The Washington Post and New York Times. We decided who would be listed as the organizing committee. They included House Speaker-to-be Tom Foley, Ambassador-to-be Jeane Kirkpatrick, civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin, Velma and Norman Hill, the “boss”of Montgomery County Democratic politics Dick Schifter, Ambassador-to-be Peter Rosenblatt and Arms-Control Negotiator-to-be Max Kampelman — and Penn Kemble. Among the listed sponsors was Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a rare combination of intellect and action.
“Penn moved quickly. Soon I found myself with him in the office of Al Barkan, who ran the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education, asking for money. There was a price to pay: listening to Barkan’s tirades against every Leftist cause-group in America, in language that was less than politically correct. (Tsk.) But we got the money.
“After a while I was elected co-chairman of CDM, then chairman. When Penn got press calls about CDM’s position — seeking “balance” he would answer them. When I got press calls, I would sometimes say ‘I’ll get right back to you’ and call Penn for the CDM position. Letterhead organizations, I realized, could get ink for a point of view, and influence policy.
“Later Penn became CDM’s chairman of the executive committee and ran the CDM military task force.
“Penn tuned me into the Yipsel greats. I had known Yipsel’s brilliant ‘theoretician’ Tom Kahn from the Scoop Jackson campaign, but not Carl Gershman (president of National Endowment for Democracy-to-be) nor author-to-be and foreign policy maven-to-be Josh Muravchik, nor the other leaders in the fight for freedom around the world.
“Penn was the brains behind many of the programs aired on a PBS television documentaries series I did in the early 1980s. They included shows on the expanding Soviet blue-water navy, another about bringing freedom to Sri Lanka, yet another called ‘Specter haunting communism: the Polish workers,’ which dealt with ‘the independent self-governing trade union’ that came to be called ‘Solidarity.’ We needed an interview with Lech Walesa, who at first refused. Penn and I then sent in word that we were ‘close friends of Lane Kirkland.’ Walesa sent word out that ‘everyone says he’s a close friend of Lane Kirkland’s.’ But we got the interview.
“Without my hardly knowing it, Penn often led me to think about the expansion of democracy and liberty in the world. Largely through Penn, I learned what my life’s cause would be, and how to go about helping make it happen. Penn, thank you, sir.”
Penn was occasionally regarded as a behind-the-scenes operative. That is the only thing I know he failed at. That’s where those 29,600 Google entries come in, mostly but not entirely friendly, linking him to most every letterhead organization that was designed to extend and promote freedom including — to name a very few — the Institute for Religion and Democracy, Freedom House, the Foundation for Democratic Education and Prodemca.
The climate created by those letterhead groups helped major government-funded organizations to which Penn contributed so much energy: the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). During the Clinton years, Penn became the acting director of the United States Information Agency. At State, Penn was one of two key officials responsible for dreaming up and bringing into being the ‘Community of Democracies,’ which in 2000 met at a global summit of democratic states in Warsaw in 2000 — which has since been both imitated and expanded. (He held the title special representative of the secretary of state for the community of democracies.) It was a most unusual letterhead organization for Penn; it was made up of governments, not NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).
Penn Kemble has been clearly recognized not only as a leader of Social Democracy, but as a global leader of what Pat Moynihan called “The Liberty Party.” Penn was an American patriot, and was never, ever, ashamed to say so.
Over the years, Penn and I became close personal friends. We went somewhat separate ways politically.
I dare not call him a neoconservative, lest he rise up from the great beyond to smite me upon the head. More than occasionally we argued, often about Social Democracy, unionism and neoconservatism; we both enjoyed that. But we argued only about means, not ends.
His friendship was an honor I treasure. His indefatigable courage in his last year, with constant help from his devoted wife Mary Louise Caravatti, (“Mal”), was a lesson for us all in how to live.
Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about his experiences in the neoconservative movement to be published in fall 2007 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.