The Common Good

Jack Kemp: Bleeding-Heart Conservative

In 1965, in a last minute move, the American Football League switched its All-Star game from New Orleans to Houston. In New Orleans, black football players had been denied entry to restaurants and taxi cabs because of the color of their skin and had begun a boycott in protest. A star quarterback, who was also the founder and president of the AFL players union, named Jack Kemp, refused to sit idly by in the face of racism, supported the boycott, and helped to get the game moved. Former football player Ernie Ladd told The Washington Post, "The only white who would take a stand was Jack Kemp. He made it known he wasn't for that type of activity." Jack Kemp thought racism was both stupid and wrong, and consistently stood up against it when few other white celebrities or leaders did. From both the sporting and political worlds, he and Bill Bradley stand out in that commitment-one a Republican and one a Democrat.

Jack Kemp died on Saturday at the age of 73, and he will be remembered and missed by many. He served from 1971 to 1989 as a congressman from New York and for four years after that as President George H. W. Bush's Housing and Urban Development Secretary. Kemp was a fervent believer in "supply side economics," which I just as fervently oppose. But you do not have to agree with all of Jack Kemp's economic policies to be impressed and inspired with his life and leadership. He championed what some called "bleeding-heart conservatism," and for his work on civil rights he was often hailed as a true Lincoln-style Republican. Jack Kemp was one of very few white politicians held in high esteem by many African Americans, and one of the very few Republicans of his era who was trusted by the black community.

He was strict in his adherence to conservative principles but often found common ground with veteran housing advocates working with and on behalf of those stuck in failed urban housing projects. His commitment to the principles of economic opportunity for the poor, and ownership and investment in blighted neighborhoods, made him a practical and pragmatic ally for those committed to transforming urban neighborhoods.

I had a few good conversations with Jack Kemp, and he was always very positive about the work we were trying to do on poverty and racism. He was less a partisan politician than a principled one. I thank God for Jack Kemp, perhaps one of the earliest pioneers of "compassionate conservatism." In his passing, I pray that his legacy would increase -- both of finding common ground with those with whom he disagreed on many things and of increasing opportunity for all of God's children. Jack will be remembered as both a lesson and an example for political leaders of the future.

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