On July 13, 85 years after he was born, we pause to honor and celebrate one of the most gifted, influential and transformational leaders in American history. Happy Jack Kemp Day.
When I first met Congressman Kemp in Denver in 1974, we’d already encountered each other many times across a pro football line of scrimmage. One of only 19 “Originals” who played all nine years in the American Football League — from 1960 to 1969 — Jack Kemp quarterbacked the Buffalo Bills in five AFL Championship games. My first game playing as a Denver Bronco against Kemp and the Bills was in December 1966 in War Memorial Stadium. After we became friends, Jack always remembered the play when he rolled around me and got a touchdown. He conveniently forgot the play when I rushed and sacked him.
But from the moment we met in 1974 until his passing at age 73 in 2009, Jack Kemp and I played in a whole new arena and on the same team. We played on the team that helped Ronald Reagan win the presidency twice and govern successfully. For the seven years while he was secretary of Housing and Urban Development and co-chairman of Empower America and I was executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council, we led the team that advanced productive free enterprise and personal empowerment in America’s low-income neighborhoods.
In 1981, the Kemp-Roth tax law gave every American taxpayer a three-year 23% tax cut. As the third-year cut took effect in the third quarter of 1983, Americans left behind the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and embarked on 73 months in a row of economic growth. The Reagan-Kemp prosperity from 1983 to 1989 brought us average annual economic growth of 5.2%, 5 million new businesses and 21 million new jobs.
With the Reagan-Kemp boom, the doubts of the 1970s gave way to the confidence of the 1980s. We rediscovered our innate strengths as Americans, including our entrepreneurial spirit. Malaise gave way to “Morning Again in America.”
In his 1980 book, “An American Renaissance,” Jack wrote that the key to America’s greatness was that “America was the one place on earth where you could climb as far as your abilities could take you, unimpeded by your lack of noble birth or laws of entail and privilege that separated the people of other countries from their God-given right to pursue the good things in life and claim a portion of them for themselves. If you were a first-rate carpenter or mezzo soprano or football quarterback, and you gave it your best – here, if anywhere, you’d make it.”
On July 17, 1980, during his speech at the Republican National Convention, Jack declared, “We are here tonight because we believe in an idea — the American Idea — that has made us the richest, most free, and most generous society on the face of the earth … The American Dream was never that everyone would be leveled to the same result. The American Dream was that each individual would have the same opportunity to rise as high or as far as effort and initiative and God-given talent could carry him or her.”
Jack knew in the depths of his being that there is no limit to growth when free men and women pursue their dreams and apply their creativity, intelligence, skills and talents in a system of productive free enterprise. And Jack’s boundless vision and bedrock conviction were matched by his optimistic, open-hearted, inclusive and dynamically energetic, even irrepressible, personality.
All of this carried over into Jack’s brilliance as a communicator. Jack conveyed his sophisticated economic arguments with passion and eloquence. Each time he got up to speak, Jack connected with, inspired and persuaded his audience.
The impact of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp was global. As it spread around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, the American Idea transformed billions of people’s lives. Nation after nation replaced its state monopolies with free enterprise. And as Mikhail Gorbachev said later, he let the Soviet Communist empire collapse because he calculated that it would never be able to compete with the United States economically.
So any time you hear anyone express doubts about America, remind them, as Jack Kemp always reminded us, that with an unshakable faith in ourselves, anything is possible. And remind them, as Jack Kemp always reminded us, that each of us has the capacity, no matter how humbly we started out in life, to fulfill the promise of the American Dream.
• Samuel A. Brunelli served as deputy director of intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Education and as executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council. He played for the Denver Broncos from 1966 to 1972.