In Part 2 of 2 of our interview Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke about their new book, Jack Kemp: The Bleeding Heart Conservative Who Changed America. Today’s below interview are responses from Mort Kondracke, former columnist for Roll Call and Fox News All-Star panelist.
Congratulations Mr. Kondracke on your new book, Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America! You became a household name after consistently appearing on Fox News’ All-Star Panel on Special Report with Brit Hume. You and your co-author, Fred Barnes, had debated each other for years! How did you find yourself writing a book together about, of all people, Jack Kemp?
When I stopped writing regular columns for Roll Call and we got replaced by blondes at Fox, I was approached by Jack Kemp’s family foundation (Jackkempfoundation.org) to do an oral history of his life. I interviewed 100 former football players, Members of Congress, staff, family etc. I knew Jack personally, but came to know him better through the interviews. No one had ever written his biography and he deserves one. The Kemp Foundation endowed the Jack Kemp Chair in Political Economy at the Library of Congress and I held it for two academic years. Kemp’s papers are housed there.
Though the Foundation enabled the biography, it is not “authorized.” The family had no control over its contents. After combing through old articles about Kemp, I found that the best were written by Fred for the New Republic and the Baltimore Sun. He is on top of contemporary politics in a way I’m not. It was natural for me to ask my old friend and partner, Fred Barnes, to help with the biography
What three takeaways would you like readers to leave with after reading your book, and how can the legacy of Jack Kemp help us in today’s toxic political environment?
First, as we say in the very first sentence of the book, Kemp was the most influential politician of the 20th Century who was not president. Certainly the most important Republican. He was the original political advocate of supply-side economics and persuaded Ronald Reagan to adopt his bill, Kemp-Roth (Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981), as the basis of Reaganomics. It launched nearly two decades of prosperity, restored American morale after the dismal ‘70s and helped win the Cold War.
Second, Kemp embodied a kind of politics—optimistic, idealistic, inclusive, compassionate, growth-oriented—different from that of almost any other politician.
Third, his life is just a great story: he was a mediocre student and middling college quarterback who became not just a star pro, but also a self-taught intellectual.
His legacy could help America today because the causes he advanced, notably tax reform (low rates, few loopholes), could reignite growth, create jobs and restore the American Dream for the mass of American workers. These are the people Kemp devoted his career to helping.
He was also in favor of school choice, low-tax enterprise zones and welfare reform to help the poor. He was incapable of attacking an opponent, which is a style of politics sorely lacking today. He wanted the GOP to again be the “Party of Lincoln” and favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants with clean records. He was the original (and genuine) compassionate conservative. He was the diametric opposite of Donald Trump in every way, except high energy.
Would it be a fair assumption that Jack Kemp was the impetus of what would become Ronald Reagan’s Supply-Side Economics policy? And should Kemp get the actual credit for leading the congressional battles for Reagan’s big tax cut proposals in congress?
Reagan had a visceral dislike of high taxes dating from his days as an actor, but cutting taxes was not the basis of his first campaign for president in 1976. It was in 1980. Kemp deserves much of the credit, having succeeded in making across-the-board cuts GOP policy in 1976. Reagan adopted Kemp’s bill, Kemp-Roth (Economic Tax Reform Act of 1981), as the basis of his economic program both in the campaign and as president.
Kemp never was a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, so he had no official role in passing the Reagan program, but when it passed, he was given a standing ovation in the House. Then in 1984, he became an advocate for tax reform—lowering rates and eliminating loopholes—which Reagan adopted and which dropped the top rate to 28 percent.
Jack Kemp was also a famous quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. What leadership skills do you believe he brought to the political arena from his experiences playing professional football?
Kemp carried an inveterate optimism into football, which made him an inspiring, “never give up” leader. He absorbed it from his Christian Science upbringing. He was taught that a person could do anything if he or she willed it. Despite being cut by five teams in three years, Kemp willed himself to become a star quarterback. He inspired his teammates to never give up. He carried this trait in to politics.
As a Congressman, he was resisted by both conventional Republicans and Democrats when he promoted supply side economics. He refused to stop and finally converted his party. As a football player, he also came to understand that race had nothing to do with a person’s merit and he fought against discrimination both in the American Football League and American life.
Not all of his football lessons served him well in politics. He called the plays on the field, but when he ran for president he didn’t know how to delegate. He couldn’t have beaten Vice President George Bush anyway, but his need for control made his campaign dysfunctional.
Many people have forgotten the 1996 presidential race where Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole. But one of the interesting highlights of the race was Dole’s selection of Jack Kemp to be his Vice Presidential running mate, even though the two were not particularly fans of each other, and had even run against each other for president in 1988. Why was Jack Kemp selected to be Dole’s VP running mate in 1996?
Dole’s campaign manager, Scott Reed, was Kemp’s chief of staff when he was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. After Dole had the ’96 GOP nomination sewed up, Reed told Dole that polling showed none of the other Republicans Dole was considering for Veep stirred enthusiasm in the party or the country. “What about the Quarterback?” Dole said to Reed. The surprise selection worked to energize the party, but the ticket was destined for failure since the incumbent president Bill Clinton was presiding over a country blessed with peace and prosperity.
It also didn’t help that, though the Clinton administration was enmeshed in scandal—including collection of campaign gifts from Asian donors—Dole could not figure out how to exploit Clinton’s ethical flaws and Kemp refused to do so, declaring (in another throwback to his football days) that his opponents were “adversaries, not enemies.”
What was your favorite moment or debate you had with your co-author, Fred Barnes, when you were both on Fox News’ All-Star Panel on Special Report with Brit Hume?
My favorite memories of our Fox days goes to election nights. In 1996, Fred and I were the new Fox News Channel’s election analysis team. We sat in a studio, were handed exit polls by a producer, and winged it for five hours or more. Of course our viewership was miniscule since Fox was as yet on few cable systems.
Then in 2000, we were continuously on the set in New York from 6 pm to 8 a.m. The following day the election seemed to go first to Gore, then to Bush, then up in the air. In 2008, we disagreed about the wisdom of John McCain’s nominating Sarah Palin for Vice President. I said something like, “For a 72 year-old man who’s had two bouts of melanoma to put a woman with zero qualifications one heartbeat away from the presidency is just irresponsible.”
What books, authors, or conservative-themed books, influenced your political philosophy and outlook on life?
I’ve been influenced by Friedrich Hayek, Irving Kristol and Milton Friedman, but more so—especially while researching the Kemp biography—by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was Kemp’s foremost hero. Like Kemp, I’ve read numerous biographies of Lincoln, especially by Gabor Boritt, Eric Foner and Allen Guelzo. They emphasize Lincoln’s belief (shared by Kemp) that the idea of America that “all should rise” and that government has a role in helping them.
I’ve also read Ronald Reagan’s diaries and autobiography and am persuaded he was truly one of America’s great presidents. Among today’s conservative writers, I value most the reformers: David Brooks, Peter Wehner, Michael Gerson, Arthur Brooks, Yuval Levin—plus Fred, of course.
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