Why Jack Kemp Matters

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In tributes since he succumbed to cancer last week, Jack Kemp has been rightfully called a statesman, patriot and visionary. The architect of a key pillar of the Reagan Revolution. But, as I look back at powerful and memorable encounters with him over the years, I remember boundless energy, constant searching for new ideas and new converts, and most of all, one hell of a guy.

Jack (and it was always "Jack", not "Congressman", or "Mr. Secretary"), preached the gospel of true hope, and the politics of the open door. He believed in the power of individuals to change and improve their lives and saw government as one partner in helping spark real opportunity, family by family.

Kemp’s open door and enthusiasm for the future was, and is, a political magnet that helped sparked Republican growth and success. But some liberal observers in recent days have mistook the positive, welcoming philosophy for an absence of governing principles, or an "anything goes" view of public policy.

If you believe that, you don’t know Jack.

There is a difference between a big tent with flaps, and a roof and structure, and a big tarp – a shapeless covering. To Jack, there was a right and wrong to how the American economy was to be organized, and the role government played in it.

The first time I met Jack was in 1996, when he was running for vice president. I was working for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge doing media relations on education issues. Kemp and Bob Dole brought their campaign to Chester, an economically struggling, largely African-American community that was the home of a wide range of education reforms aimed at empowering families. Two aspects of the day still paint a vivid picture, nearly 13 years later.

First, black men and women sought out Kemp, as he did them. In Jack, they saw a leader – and a Republican – who sincerely and personally wanted them to succeed. And he offered a vision not of more of the paternalistic government programs that had already done damage to communities like Chester.

Instead, Jack’s gospel was that of a helping hand that you must grasp to, in Theodore Roosevelt’s phrase "make your life." Kemp believed that whether is was choosing a better school for your kids, owning your own home or starting a small business, government must open the door and give you the chance, but you must seize it. That’s real freedom.

The second aspect I remember is his energy. At that visit – and I suspect throughout much of that ill-fated campaign – he seemed like a caged tiger, pacing back and forth, ready to get out.

He was standing next to me during a typical campaign small-group meeting for an elite group of supporters, and he kept saying under his breath, "Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s get outta here." He wanted to get outside to the rally of working-class folks with whom Republicans hadn’t closed the deal yet.

When I came to Colorado to join Gov. Bill Owens" administration, I had the chance to be with Jack several times at meetings and retreats for groups he was involved with, most notably Empower America. Each time, his boundless energy, curiosity and passion for ideas was infectious.

In what was consistently a fire hose of words and ideas, he always had a new book to recommend, a new innovative thinker or emerging leader to tout, a new project to discuss. Most of all, he made us understand that in every one of God’s children there exists the potential for a bright, independent and successful future.

Like many conservatives who came of age during the Reagan years, I owe much of my optimistic belief in the future to Jack Kemp, the evangelist of empowerment. He shaped my view of what it means to be a Republican who can offer real, substantive hope and opportunity to Americans, particularly to those at the bottom of the ladder.

Not every Kemp position was right or perfect. But, in the main, his ideas and his memory should provide the GOP with a real, relevant roadmap back to power. In Kemp there is a positive, practical antidote to the currently fashionable but ultimately fatally flawed wave of "government as savior" policies.

America, and particularly the Republican Party, needs more Jack Kemps. And today we miss his energy, solid ideas and infectious hope for the future. I know I do.

Sean Duffy ([email protected]) is a principal at a Denver public relations firm and served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Gov. Bill Owens from 2001-2005. Sean also is a past President of the Commonwealth Foundation and the Pennsylvania Leadership Council.)