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The Kemp Legacy

Recovering from the man who assailed the social contract

Jack Kemp died last week. He was widely euologized as a sweet and positive man who tried to bring African Americans into the Republican party. Indeed, Kemp (or a ghostwriter) wrote a column in the form of a letter to his grandchildren last November. In it he celebrated Barack Obama’s election to the presidency—and so cemented his reputation as a sweet and positive man.

“My first thought last week upon learning that a 47-year-old African-American Democrat had won the presidency was, ‘Is this a great country or not?’,” Kemp wrote.

To his last, he was a successful politician. And as a politician, he isn’t covered by the Sullivan doctrine, nor by the Latin admonition de mortui nil nisi bonum, which translates, approximately, to this: “of the dead, say nothing but good.”

That’s because Kemp set out to destroy the social contract in America. He was sweet and he was not a racist, but he very intentionally, very deliberately decided that he would invest his charisma, his charm, his legitimacy as a star athlete, and his association with intellectuals in an enterprise that was fundamentally anti-democratic. We are today, at the beginning of the Obama administration, just beginning to see a policy push-back that may reverse some of the trouble Kemp helped cause.

Kemp committed three sins: He compromised with evil men, he offered false hope to desperate people, and he did not speak truth to power.

The former NFL quarterback grew up in Southern California, that region of America that Hollywood has led most of the world to believe is the land of limitless possibility. Yes, it is the place where the sun shines endlessly. It is also where military spending created massive wealth out of technology invented in Buffalo (specifically, the jet engine) and industries that removed from the Northeast, including Buffalo. Jack Kemp’s homeland is the American place where there endures to this day a political vocabulary based on getting white native-born Americans to believe that government is the thing that takes their money and gives it to undeserving, disorderly, ungrateful dark-skinned people.

Kemp did not use that formula, but he benefited from it. Richard Nixon, with help from his strategists Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips, used that vocabulary to consolidate national power. So did Kemp’s political godfather, Ronald Reagan, who was governor while Nixon was president. Reagan had left cloudy, cold Illinois for sunny Southern California, shedding his youthful enthusiasm for Franklin Delano Roosevelt along the way, and perfecting the rhetoric of racial code-words. Please do not forget, if you were alive in the 1980 campaign, that Ronald Reagan went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, expressly for the purpose of reassuring Southern whites that it is just fine and dandy to reject the Civil Rights movement. Kemp, the native son of the Sunbelt who did the reverse migration, let others handle that part of the messaging. To his everlasting credit, Kemp was just like former Senator Bill Bradley, another top pro athlete who campaigned against racism. To his everlasting demerit, Kemp went along and got along with these men who made the Republican Party the National White People’s Party—who built a national political movement on hinting, gesturing, and sometimes shouting that 12 percent of the US population is what’s wrong with America.

So should that be our verdict—nice Jack Kemp, nasty Republican racists? No. There’s more, and it’s worse.

The notion of capital as liberating

It’s so sad to reflect on how Kemp and his handlers so brutally exploited the social, racial, and economic trouble of our town with the best Ronald Reagan California tactics. Racially resentful suburban Catholics were Kemp’s key electoral addition. Kemp’s good looks, his football fame, his relentless focus on taxes as the universal explanation for why factories were closing and why Buffalo was failing—these were the messages that helped him build a new coalition.

Former UB Professor David Perry, as well as Buffalo State economist Douglas Koritz, has presented scholarship that shows that Buffalo’s industrial strength was waning even before World War II ended, and that local ownership of industry—a hallmark of community strength in other Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh—has been lacking here for decades. The pictures tell the story pretty well, too. Walk through the great new Burchfield Gallery show of Tony Sisti’s paintings from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s; take a look at Virginia Cuthbert’s works, and at Charles Burchfield’s own sketches and paintings of what he called “industrial decay,” and you can see that Buffalo’s fall was a long time in the making, and that artists saw it all quite precisely 60 years ago and more.

And yet Jack Kemp, who ran for office in 1972, did not address this honestly. He did not speak to the national policies that had intentionally shifted industrial capital out of Buffalo in favor of the Sunbelt. Neither did Kemp talk frankly about how specific Nixon-era deals helped Great Lakes steelmakers move south and then overseas. Neither did Jack Kemp eschew the political tactics developed by the brilliant strategist Kevin Phillips, whose many books since his service to the Republicans of the Nixon era have been a long mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, especially for his sin of having articulated the “Southern strategy.”

Kemp first ran for office while the Californian President Richard Nixon built a national political mandate by using racial code words, promising “peace with honor” as his solution to the Vietnam War, and bashing Democrats as defeatists and their long-haired, bearded, sexually self-liberating, college-aged allies as much, much worse. In 1972, Kemp was a natural in the suburban Buffalo media market. The genuine World War II hero George McGovern, the guy who flew dangerous bomber raids that destroyed the oil wells that fueled Hitler’s murder of millions, never had a chance against hippie-bashing Nixon and handsome Kemp.

Kemp’s good looks and anti-tax message helped him survive the Nixon calamity of 1974. Kemp never really suffered an electoral close call anytime after. And by the time Ronald Reagan had become a candidate for president in 1980, Kemp was there—there with intellectuals like Jude Wanniski, George Gilder, Michael Novak, Paul Craig Roberts, and most especially Arthur Laffer—with a new nostrum called Supply-Side Economics.

Gordon Gekko’s morality enacted

During the fight for the epochal 1986 federal tax reform, I had frequent debates with the estimable Catholic intellectual Michael Novak, who, like Kemp, had become an enthusiastic supporter of economic royalism. Novak had come to fame by writing about folks like Buffalo’s Poles in his influential book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. Novak truly believed that the rich hold their wealth in trust for the rest of society; he told me so directly, while I argued back that society would benefit were Congress to get serious about tax reform, and especially about ending the slew of special tax preferences for capital gains and other forms of money made from everything but actual work.

Jack Kemp liked incentives for capital. Kemp had become famous in the late 1970s and early 1980s for asserting that tax cuts for wealthy individuals and for big corporations would yield such great economic returns for America that there would be no deficit. “Tax cuts will pay for themselves,” he said.

This was, of course, nonsense.

Kemp had teamed up with another Republican congressman from Western New York, the estimable Barber Conable (who would go on to run the World Bank), and Texas thug Kent Hance, to produce such a rotten, preference-filled, egregious travesty of a tax bill that by 1986 almost everybody in Washington wanted to get rid of it.

Kemp ran for president in 1988 as Reagan’s second term ended. The uniqueness of his message of tax cuts as the pathway to economic growth was by then obscured; everybody from Pete DuPont of Delaware to George H. W. Bush of Kennebunkport had embraced Kempism. Kemp had absolutely nothing to do with the infamous race-baiting ad about the case of rapist-murderer Willie Horton of Massachusetts—egad! But Kemp became HUD secretary under the first Bush.

And as a cabinet secretary, he made the concept of cutting taxes into the Enterprise Zone—a policy hat has handed out much false hope to many locally governed, self-limiting cities and to the poor people who live in them. Kempism in policy continues on and on: We have Enterprise Zones, Empowerment Zones, HO-Zones, and other types of zones, in which the Kemp notion of offering reduced tax rates is fully empowered as policy, but where—because cities and suburbs are governed separately—nothing much results, year after year after year.

Raising false hopes. Collaborations with evil men. And as for failing to speak truth to power?

The life-ways and choices of the Buffalo characters in A. R. Gurney’s plays tell us a lot about how rich folks view the world: They view it as Hemingway said they did, the same as you and I do, except that they have more money. A. R. Gurney and all his kin grew up in a prominent extended family that has been comfortable for some generations—bully for them and long may they prosper—and Gurney’s insights about the mentality of intergenerational wealth are strong and enduring, and as follows: The rich are as insular and as inward-looking as any peasants you will ever meet, and they look after their own kin and kind, and Michael Novak is just plain wrong.

The smart, tragic story of the social-climbing ethnic Jay Gatsby, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s telling, is not about nobility or about wealth as a tool of social betterment. Even P. G. Wodehouse, whose fondness for Bertie Wooster and the other Drones was genuine, knew that money then, like money now, is all about consumption. Thorstein Veblen got it right a hundred years ago: People with money like to flaunt it, and they consume stupid stuff very visibly mainly to show that they are able to do so. We of all people should know so, for we are Americans. This is what we do.

No, stuff doesn’t change. Politicians figure out ways to get close to wealth. But Paul Krugman’s recent book Conscience of a Liberal, which is really an economic history of the 20th century, shows how what Jack Kemp worked so hard to destroy—a general uplift, a widespread spreading of the wealth via all sorts of mass-application social programs like the GI Bill, public colleges, big road projects and lots of science spending—is what made our society rich.

Not tax cuts. Not Jack Kemp’s campaign to cut marginal tax rates on capital. Not his campaign for flat taxes or for the gold standard. What made America rich was exactly the opposite of what Jack Kemp spent his political life advocating, even as he teamed up with men who undermined civil rights and beggared so many industrial communities. Jack Kemp was indeed an optimist. Jack Kemp was not a racist. And on economic policy questions, he was also not correct. He was pleasant, energetic, and wrong. Requiescat in pace.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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