The Magazine

The Quarterback in the Big Game

Jack F. Kemp, 1935-2009.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By NEWT GINGRICH
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Jack Kemp lived every day as "the big game"--a fresh chance to score touchdowns and win the contest. He always heard the potential roar of the crowds, and he was energized by the possibility of achievement. More than any Republican since Theodore Roosevelt he believed in the strenuous life and reveled in meeting challenges and overcoming difficulties.

Jack Kemp must have learned these deep traits of resilience, determination, and courage at an early age. He displayed them in his professional football career, where being cut and traded had no discernible effect on his self-confidence and his enthusiasm. He knew he could be an effective leader on the field, and eventually the Buffalo Bills gave him the chance to prove it.

When Kemp left the contests of the football arena, it was to take on the even more tumultuous conflicts of the political arena. He identified deeply with the blue-collar industrial workers who had been his fans in Buffalo, and would represent them in Congress from 1971 to 1989.

Unlike most Republicans, Kemp took very seriously the economic insecurity of the working class and the plight of their aging, decaying industrial base. Unlike most Democrats, Kemp knew that high taxes, big government, and welfare were not a solution--they were a trap that would destroy people and communities.

Once he got to Congress he discovered daring, change-oriented economists like Arthur Laffer, who understood that high tax rates (which then topped out at 70 percent) stifled growth and investment. He also met the leading writer about investment-led growth (which is what "supply side economics" is all about) Jude Wanniski. They and others rapidly educated Kemp on the case for lower taxation as the key to productivity and economic growth. Convinced by the "supply side" model of lower taxes and greater entrepreneurship, Kemp became the leading evangelist--and legislator--of the new movement.

It is hard today to remember how initially isolated, opposed, and ridiculed Kemp was by the Republican establishment. Before Kemp, the party had been deeply committed to austerity, spending cuts, and economic pain. Republicans had opposed John F. Kennedy's tax cuts. The last Republican House majority (1953-54) had raised taxes. It had also failed to be reelected. The House Republicans were a boring, inwardly oriented group with the mindset of a permanent minority.

Into this stodgy world came the hurricane-like energy and noise of a professional football quarterback appealing to blue-collar Democrats. It was astonishing to watch Kemp brush aside his critics. He cheerfully, enthusiastically, and joyfully undertook missionary efforts on behalf of lower taxes, entrepreneurs, and economic growth.

I first met Jack Kemp in 1976 when I was waging my second campaign for Congress. I had lost in 1974, and with fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter as the Democratic presidential nominee I was on the way to a second defeat. Kemp came to the GOP state convention in Savannah and was a wonderful breath of new ideas, new hope, and new optimism. I got to spend an hour with him in which he coached me on campaigning (a little) and on the new economics of growth and opportunity (a lot). I left Savannah far more enthusiastic than I arrived.

In 1978 I ran my third campaign as a "supply side, tax cut, economic growth" Republican. That was the year the Republican National Committee chairman Bill Brock chartered a plane dubbed the tax-cut special and flew Kemp and Senator Bill Roth around the country touting their bold new agenda--a 10 percent tax cut per year for three years. It became a centerpiece of our 1978 effort. Our campaign put out a newspaper dedicated to how lower taxes would improve the lives of working Georgians. We used a grocery shopping cart as our symbol. We had combined Jack's supply-side ideas with the modern equivalent of William McKinley's full lunch bucket to appeal to working Americans and their economic interests. We won.

I came to Washington as a Kemp disciple, but I got madder at the old Republican establishment than he did. I resented their slights and maneuvers, while he cheerfully tromped past them and kept talking up new ideas, outreach, and policies.

Halfway through my freshman term, in 1979, Kemp said he was going to California. He was wavering between running for president himself as a tax-cutting candidate and helping lead Ronald Reagan's campaign. Kemp had been an intern in Governor Reagan's office a decade before. He liked Reagan but was determined that there would be a candidate dedicated to the Kemp-Roth tax cuts.

The following Monday I got a very excited phone call from a very happy Jack Kemp. Governor Reagan had agreed to make tax cuts a centerpiece of his campaign, and Kemp had agreed to be one of his national chairmen.