JACK KEMP: THE BLEEDING-HEART CONSERVATIVE WHO CHANGED AMERICA
By Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes
Sentinel, $29.95, 390 pages
From 1998 to 2009, Fox News aired a weekly program called “The Beltway Boys,” featuring two highly respected Washington journalists — Fred Barnes, a traditional conservative, and Morton Kondracke, an old-school liberal — commenting on and debating the political issues of the day, and in the process combining the best features of conservatism and liberalism.
Jack Kemp, the subject of this anecdote-rich, crisply written and thoughtful book, personified those qualities throughout his career, serving as congressman for the Buffalo area of New York state from 1971 to 1989, George H.W. Bush’s housing and urban development secretary from 1989 to 1993, and Bob Dole’s vice-presidential running mate in 1996.
He prepared for his political career as quarterback with several pro football teams, most notably the Buffalo Bills, taking them to two championships in the old AFL, a league noted for its wide-open, mad-bomber high-scoring style of football. Football was also instrumental in shaping his social views, which included actively attacking whatever manifestations of racial discrimination his black teammates suffered.
“It was famously said of him that as a pro-football star, ‘he’d showered with more African-Americans than most Republicans had ever met.’ ” It was his eloquent defense of civil rights and his commitment to giving minorities and the poor “a stake in the American dream” that helped persuade George H.W. Bush, despite his 1980 condemnation of “voodoo economics,” to name Kemp his secretary of housing and urban development.
But above all, the authors write, Jack Kemp made his mark on American history “as Congress’ foremost advocate for supply-side economics,” the theory that lower taxes lead to economic growth, “and the man who steered Ronald Reagan toward adopting it.”
His influence, they contend, helped pull the country out the deep malaise of the low, dishonest decade of the 1970s, with severe economic dislocation at home and humiliation abroad — “an era of bottomed-out national morale.” But that all changed in the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan in the White House and Jack Kemp “at the center of the great turnaround.”
Mr. Kondracke and Mr. Barnes describe in some detail the process that brought the supply-side theory to the fore, with brief but well-drawn portraits of the key proponents — among them the academics Robert Mundell and Arthur Laffer, whose famous Laffer curve diagram was frequently drawn on Washington cocktail napkins; Irving Kristol and Paul Craig Roberts; and Jude Wanniski, a “colorful intellectual seeker, strategist, polemicist” and a journalist and commentator with The Wall Street Journal who converted Jack Kemp to supply-side economics in an all-day session that began in Kemp’s office and continued into the night at his home.
“Together, Kemp and Wanniski would become a formidable team, Wanniski with The [Wall Street] Journal platform and Kemp with the political energy.”
The authors credit Kemp with persuading Ronald Reagan in 1980 to make his tax-cut bill, “Kemp Roth,” a centerpiece of economic policy and the basis of Reaganomics, with its main features incorporated into the Economic Recovery and Tax Act of 1981. As a result, in that year the top tax rate dropped to 50 percent from 70 percent, and in 1986 to 28 percent, with middle-income taxpayers enjoying similar reductions.
These Reagan-Kemp tax cuts, write the authors, “set off an economic boom that lasted into the 2000s” — a boom that blew away the remnants of President Carter’s “malaise,” boosted morale at home and restored our standing abroad, laying the economic groundwork for the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Union and a renewed belief in democratic capitalism.
“The achievements of the 1980s were mainly Reagan’s,” the authors write, “but their economic underpinning was Kemp’s.”
At times Jack Kemp could be aggravating because of his tendency to preach his supply-side gospel and social views non-stop, always intent on moving his team down the field. And he disappointed many when he performed poorly in his vice-presidential debate with Al Gore in 1996, refusing to go on the attack. (Al Gore thanked him; Bob Dole didn’t).
Nevertheless, the authors write, “In this era of political bleakness” he serves as “a model of what politicians ought to be,” with a message of hope, growth and prosperity.
“He thought large: about changing the whole basis of U.S. economic policy, fiscal and monetary; about government as ‘the Good Shepherd’ leaving no lamb to be lost; about spreading freedom and prosperity around the world.
“His was a spirit that barely survives in the mean politics of the present day. We hope this book will help change that.”
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).
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