David B.




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May 7, 2009

Kemp Dies, Takes Republicanism With Him


It seems so very long ago that I, as a starry-eyed 17-year-old suburbanite, was sufficiently young and naive enough to enthusiastically support B-grade actor Ronald Wilson Reagan for the presidency of the United States. But support Reagan I did – sufficiently enthusiastically and vocally as to earn myself attendance at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit and subsequently to Reagan’s inauguration.


Jack Kemp’s passing this past week spurred renewed reflection upon that convention – the names, the faces, the frenetic flurry of politicking taking place on the convention floor, in the corridors, in the hotel restaurants and virtually anywhere there was room for one person to stand and shame, cajole, wheedle, intimidate, reason or plead support for a position or a candidate out of another. Some of the most effective wheedlers and pleaders at that time were working on behalf of this particular former football hero, then angling for the party’s vice presidential nod.


Kemp wasn’t alone: Richard Lugar was mounting a fairly aggressive campaign of his own, and much attention – and derision – was given to one George Herbert Walker Bush. The plurality of grassroots enthusiasm, however, lay elsewhere: Buttons, signs, stickers, placards proclaiming “Reagan/Kemp” were thrust into the hands of virtually anyone willing to carry one, and plenty of people wanted to.


In his off-floor address to attendees, Kemp made his case as the true conservative’s candidate – the no-nonsense, straight-talking, right-as-right gets copilot for the incipient Reagan revolution, and the crowd loved it. This was the man they wanted to stand beside Reagan, ensuring that the Gipper brooked no compromises with the reviled liberals. They were, after all, the true believers – the “real” Republicans who waved the flags, shouted the slogans and traveled thousands of miles mostly at their own expense to advance the conservative cause in this most dispirited of rust belt cities. Bush? They wanted no part of him – “weak,” “pandering,” “moderate.”


In the end, though, we knew who had won out. Bush was the safe choice, the middle-of-the-road pragmatist who’d win over Democrats and independents. Kemp, as enamored as the party base may have been of him, was seen as too right-wing, too extremist, too uncompromising. America wasn’t ready, we were told, for a truly hard-right administration.


A lot has changed in 29 years: The Republican Party has migrated from conservative to crazy, holding forth a gun-crazed Alaskan soccer mom and an obese, bloviating proto-fascist as its standard bearers on the stump and in the media respectively whilst driving traditional garden-variety reactionaries of the Arlen Specter variety from its ranks. In the meantime, the late Jack Kemp has undergone a transformation as well, although through no particular effort of his own: Once decreed too conservative, too extreme to share a presidential ticket with the most conservative president of the latter half of the 20th Century, he is now eulogized as a moderate, as a voice of reason and balance.


That Kemp’s demise and Specter’s defection should occur synchronously seems symbolic: For generations, both men had stood at the epicenter of the Republican Party’s corridors of power, the establishmentarian’s establishmentarians, old-guard conservative stalwarts emblematic of Big Business/Big Military Republicanism – the Republicanism of Nixon, of Reagan and of a century’s worth of electoral success.


Now that they’re gone, the Palins, Limbaughs and Steeles stand in their stead, crazed-eyed pretenders to the throne, representative of an insurgent John Birchite class of ideologues preoccupied with party purification and with unhealthy impulses towards authoritarianism. To the delight of progressives everywhere, they are managing to sabotage their party’s future electoral chances more effectively than any number of ACORN moles, and to undercut any credibility men like Jack Kemp may have once lent it.


Jack Kemp’s official cause of death was cancer. It is hard to believe, though, that a broken heart was not a contributing factor.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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