Jack Kemp passed away this weekend, of cancer at age seventy-three. Former vice-presidential candidate, congressman, and Housing secretary, he was the most improbable and the most important hero of the Reagan Revolution after the Gipper himself. Without Jack’s true-believer’s passion for tax cuts as a remedy for the stagflation of the 1970s, Reagan would not have staked his presidency on an untested and controversial theory. His death should remind us how lucky we were to have leaders like Reagan and Kemp, and a political system that allowed improbable leadersan ex-actor and a retired quarterbackto appear at providential moments.
It was impossible to be cynical in Jack’s vicinity. He radiated sincerity and optimism. Corny as it sounds, Jack was the real thing, an all-American true believer in this country and in the capacity of its people to overcome any obstacle once given the chance.
Jack’s coach in matters of economics was a flamboyant Wall Street Journal editorialist, Jude Wanniski. In 1975, Jude published the first manifesto of what later become known as supply-side economics in Irving Kristol’s ideas journal, The Public Interest. Shortly afterward he met Kemp, then representing Buffalo in the House of Representatives after a decade as the star player for the Buffalo Bills. The rest is history. It was a marriage made in that low but solid heaven known as American politics. A devout Catholic, Jude was convinced that God had chosen him to bring prosperity to the oppressed masses of 1970s of America. Jack bragged that he had taken more showers with black guys than anyone in the U.S. Congress and, as a professional athlete, was the Republican least tainted by racism.
What attracted Jack Kemp to supply-side economics was the promise of advancement for ordinary people. At the end of a long cycle of economic expansion, it is easy to forget how it all began. Jack had been associated with future President Reagan since 1969, when he worked on the California governor’s staff in Sacramento. As a U.S. Congressman representing a working-class constituency in the traditionally Democratic city of Buffalo, Jack got elected on his sports-hero credentials. He passionately believed in individual opportunity and free markets, and he needed an argument to take to the union rank-and-file who made up the bulk of his district’s voters. Supply-side economics, the premise that tax cuts and corresponding regulatory reform would unleash the creative energies of Americans, persuaded him, and he became its great missionary.
The transmission of ideas in the Reagan Revolution was one of the stranger developments in intellectual history. Robert Mundell, the Canadian economist who in 1999 would win the Nobel Prize, had already been chief economist of the International Monetary Fund and was teaching at the University of Chicago. Arthur Laffer (whose famous “Laffer Curve” would summarize supply-side economics) was Mundell’s colleague at Chicago. Mundell is an authentic genius who sported shoulder length prematurely gray hair, with Siamese-cat blue eyes that had an unnerving way of fixing on his conversation partner. The professionals in economics shunned him because his views were so novel as to threaten all their settled opinions.
Laffer translated Mundell’s insights into terms that Jude Wanniski could understand, and Jude then explained it all to Kemp. Through this game of telephone, there emerged the 1981 Kemp-Roth Tax Cuts, one of the few really decisive turning points in American economic history. And it was accomplished entirely outside the usual channels of policy transmission. There were no Wall Street gurus, no strings pulled by investment banks, no academic consensus, only a broken-down actor, a broken-down quarterback, an outsider of an economist, and a newsman with pronounced messianic tendencies.
Knowing the story in detail is one of the empirical observations that led me to conclude that there is a special providence for the United States. I was Jude Wanniski’s business partner at a long-since-defunct consulting firm between 1988 and 1993, when the glory days of the Reagan reforms were long since past. I first met Jack during his tenure as Housing secretary in 1989, in Mexico City during an official visit. My job was to brief him on the Mexican economy and Mexican politics, which I did in two-minute segments during breaks in a Seattle Seahawks’ game. His son Jeff was playing quarterback that day, and Jack had no questions about priority.
Jack was a leader who loved his country and put it before personal gain. When he left office he had the equity in his house and not much else. But he had four children, including two sons who played professional football, and seventeen grandchildren. By the time I got to know him he was full time on the lecture circuit, putting his family finances in order before joining the Washington thinktank Empower America. He considered a run for president in 1996 but deferred to Steve Forbes, then running as the tax-cutting candidate. His outstanding career as a Republican leader was coming to an end, but what a glorious run it was.
A devout Christian, Jack made far more of a difference than an ex-quarterback with a physical education degree from Occidental College had a right to. He earned our gratitude not only for what he accomplished, but for what he proved about the character of the United States.
David P. Goldman is associate editor of First Things.