When The Washington Times asked me to kick off its new World Watch column, the ground rules were: “Write about anything you like.” I had no inkling that I would have to begin with such a heavy heart.
As I am writing these words, I have just learned that Jack Kemp has died. That seems impossible. He was as close to a force of nature as any human being I have ever known. A force with only one direction: Up.
Jack gave me my first job in Washington in 1981, when he was a U.S. House member, and in many ways, it never ended. Jack and wife Joanne have four children and 17 grandchildren, but they also have acquired uncounted extended family in the people who worked for him through nine tours in Congress, a Cabinet post and two presidential campaigns. He inspired such loyalty because he cared so deeply about every cause he championed.
For Jack, “a rising tide lifts all boats” was not a slogan, it was a philosophy of life. He embodied the American ideal of unbounded enthusiasm for the possible, from his well-known accomplishments in economic policy to his solid leadership in every significant national security debate during his service in Congress.
Some of our adversaries and perhaps even more of our friends hold this quintessential American optimism in some disdain. But the truth is that there is a great secret in reaching for the extraordinary: That is how you get there.
Which is not to say that the path is easy. Late one night, we were riding over to the Capitol, where he was going to be casting yet another minority vote, leading a recalcitrant few who were sticking to their guns. The corridor was silent and empty when Jack sighed, “Do you know why I do this? Because if I don’t, no one else will.”
It was a statement utterly lacking in hubris or ego. It was weariness. It was a man alone, toughing it out. It is easy to be a leader of a crowd eager to head on down the street. It is far, far more difficult to lead when the road is untraveled, uncertain and steep.
Of course, it helps if you have overwhelming charisma.
I accompanied the Kemps on a visit to Moscow in 1983. It was the height of the Cold War, Yuri Andropov was in charge and Soviet military power was on the rise. We walked into a reception at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, where the senior Russian guest was a high-ranking government official right out of central casting. Gruff. Imposing. Unsmiling. Unapproachable. And Jack walked right up to him, flung his arm around him and gave him a gregarious welcome: “Hey, Vic, how are you doing?”
I doubt that “Vic” had ever met anyone like Jack, and he was utterly at a loss on how to respond. Jack had captured the point, the room and the night. Score one for the Americans.
Jack’s irrepressible friendliness was not an act; it was a part of his essential being, whether in the locker room or the Roosevelt Room. And as a political presence, it was irresistible, if occasionally frustrating, when, for example, a Cabinet meeting needed to be brought to a close. We would joke that he was the only Housing and Urban Development secretary with his own defense policy. I later learned that was a little less funny to other members of the Bush Cabinet.
But Jack had a hungry intellect, an amazing recall and an abiding faith in the power of ideas. In particular, he would talk about the great American experiment in democracy with a deep knowledge of the history of that experiment and an even greater appreciation of its future potential. Today, of course, pundits are quick to denigrate notions of exporting democracy as misleading, silly and unrealistic “neocon”-speak.
But for Jack, promoting democratic institutions and individual liberties was the heart and soul of America, where our foreign policy began, not where it ended. The principle endured - whether the cause was freedom fighters in Central America, aspiring democracies in the Middle East, the Solidarity movement in Poland or the now-free “captive nations” of the former Soviet Union. The U.S. intelligence community uniquely among the intelligence services of the world has this dual task: to warn of threats to America’s security and our interests, but also to identify opportunities to advance American values. Our nation is stronger because these duties go hand in hand.
A profound belief in the goodness of this country and in the universality of individual rights is the beginning of effective national leadership. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to hear our leaders apologizing for what they see as America’s shortcomings. I want them to raise aloft what is good about America as a promise for all who choose to follow.
We have lost an extraordinary leader.
But what endures brightly is his example. His distinctive stamp on the party of Lincoln and on American politics - the politics of optimism - was never more desperately needed than today. Somewhere, future leaders will find in Jack Kemp’s legacy the restless insight and inspiration they need to pick up where he left off. It will be his finest completed pass.
A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Friday at the Washington National Cathedral.
• Michelle Van Cleave was head of U.S. counterintelligence under President George W. Bush. Her first job in Washington was defense and foreign policy assistant to Mr. Kemp and the House Republican Conference from 1981 to 1986.