Albion Monitor /Features

The Prince

by Jeff Elliott

Only a cynic would doubt Jack Kemp's sincerity -- right?

Although conservatives sometime joke that the 11th commandment reads, "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," Jack Kemp once told the New York Times a story about his days as a member of the Bush Administration. While Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Kemp brought a brochure he had written to a 1992 Cabinet meeting. Distributing them to the President and others around the table, Kemp recalled one of the Cabinet members flinging it back at him, as if to say, "Here's what I think of you and your brochures, loudmouth."

Told by anyone else, it would be a rather shocking story; not only does it make a former Republican Administration look bad, it doesn't cast Jack Kemp in too flattering a light, either. For most politicians, the incident would be an embarrassment to cover up, not an ancedote to tell reporters.

But Jack Kemp is not like most politicians. He uses stories like that to portray himself as a maverick -- or, just maybe, messiah -- of the Republican party. There are three aspects to the self-portrait that Kemp paints:

  • Honest Jack Although Kemp was a nine-term Congressman, he portrays himself as the Beltway outsider, a truthful man who's beholden to no one, ready to speak his mind and damn the consequences. Naturally, this courageous stand makes him a pariah; only once in four years was he allowed to be in a photo op with President Bush, he complained -- or boasted.
  • Kemp The 'Big Idea' Guy Recruited by New York Republicans in 1970 after a pro football career, Kemp has redefined himself as a leading conservative intellectual. While at HUD, he flooded the White House with memos, papers, reports, and suggestions -- which were almost entirely ignored by the Administration. More recently he's been a key player at the conservative Empower America and Heritage Foundation think tanks.
  • Activist Jack Kemp Valiantly fighting for the underdog, Kemp calls himself a "bleeding heart conservative." While other Bush Cabinet members competed to make the most draconian budget cuts, Kemp wanted to spend billions of dollars fighting poverty. Just two years ago, he alienated many in the GOP by opposing Pete Wilson's beloved Proposition 187.
  • Opposing Prop 187 -- and even denouncing it after the election, where 4 out of 5 voters approved it -- is just the kind of thing that makes Kemp seem ... well, un-Republican. But only a cynic would doubt Jack Kemp's sincerity -- right?

    Well, no. His performance at HUD and lesser-known comments by Kemp call into question both his motivations and personal character. Deconstructing "The Three Faces of Jack" is a good way to debunk belief that "compassionate conservative" is anything but an oxymoron.

    Another worker in Kemp's empowerment camp was the man responsible for the infamous Wille Horton ads

    "Activist Jack Kemp" had the chance to strut his stuff during his years as Secretary of HUD in the Bush Adminstration. Before considering Kemp's tenure, it's important to review how bad conditions were when he took over. During the Reagan years, the Department was nearly dismantled; the annual budget dropped from $59 billion in 1978, to just $9 billion in Kemp's first year, 1989.

    In that year, investigations were already underway into HUD corruption under his predecessor, Reagan appointee Samuel R. Pierce Jr. Congressional investigators eventually concluded that $2 billion was lost in an orgy of "influence peddling, blatant favoritism, monumental waste and gross mismanagement." In a coverup that reached into Pierce's office, aides lied to Congress about receiving payoffs from developers.

    Kemp's HUD administration was free of that scandal, instead reflecting an approach common in the early, gung-ho Reagan years. In practice, Kemp's compassionate ideas about housing were only variations on the Reaganite deregulation theme, where an unrestricted free-market would solve all of society's ills.

    One program was HOPE, a labored acronym for "Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere." Selling public housing to the poor, Kemp argued, would solve the problem of our blighted inner cities. Another idea was a long-time Republican favorite, the tax credit. Give the poor a low-income housing tax credit and they can buy new homes or rehablilitate older ones.

    These and other plans looked great in theory, but failed in practice. Little of the money actually reached the truly needy, and the programs benefitted investors far more than impoverished tenants. The obvious paradox of the poor buying their way out of poverty aside, the tax credit became a subsidy for the rich, with as little as 13 percent of the benefits going to the poor. A 1992 Congressional study found bankers and real estate developers skimming up to 30 cents from every federal dollar spent by the program.

    HOPE and the tax credit were just part of the arsenal for Kemp's "War on Poverty." Every great crusade requires a slogan, and around 1990 Kemp began speaking of "empowering" the poor. This was a great joke to them, according to one aide later quoted in the New York Times: "that's what's fun about it -- stealing one of the Left's own words." Another worker in Kemp's empowerment camp was the man responsible for the infamous Wille Horton ads during the 1988 Bush campaign.

    Other dictionary entries were changed by the Kemp gang. Where NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) once meant elitists who unjustly sought to keep the poor at arm's length, Kemp redefined it to mean anyone who opposes real estate development. That is, as long as the builder says the magic words: affordable housing.

    Of all the Kempian theories, only affordable housing found popular appeal. It still remains a battle cry, uniting a coalition of church and community groups with construction industry special-interests. Opposing affordable housing projects places liberals and progressives in an uncomfortable role as snobs, fighting to keep the unfortunate away from their neighborhoods.

    But the 1991 Kemp Commission Report, "Not in My Back Yard: Removing Barriers to Affordable Housing," does far more than simply advocate low and moderate income housing; it calls for the removal of environmental laws, local planning, and demands substantial tax breaks for developers. In essence, it seeks to remove any restrictions on building anything, anywhere.

    This master plan was written by the 22-member Kemp Commission, a lopsided group of bankers, builders, and right-wing policy wonks. From their view, a builder has the right to build almost anything he wants -- even if it overloads public services such as sewer and water.

    Though Kemp no longer controls HUD, the legacy of his Commission lives on; affordable housing became a cause, and is still popular in crowded states like California, where too many people and too few resources has forced regional governments to sharply restrict new construction. And to the anger of local planners and officials throughout California, developers have friends in state government who still revere his NIMBY report like Holy Writ, and use its goals to force inappropriate development.

    Some bonus recipents had suspiciously close ties to the new Empower America organization

    "Honest Jack" is probably Kemp's most familiar image. Claiming a higher moral ground through his "Empower America" foundation -- stealing again the progressive's word that he first purloined while at HUD -- Kemp has spent much of the last few years joined at the lip with former drug czar William Bennett. Together with Jeanne Kirkpatrick they've crossed the country stumping for familiar Republican causes: school vouchers that will fix our schools, "enterprise zones" that will cure poverty, and, of course, affordable housing that will house the poor.

    But while Republicans will undoubtedly bring up character issues this election year and lambaste Bill and Hillary over Whitewater, insider stock trading, and other assorted monkey business, perhaps they should first look at Kemp's transition from HUD to a founding member of the Empower America foundation.

    Just hours before the end of his tenure as HUD Secretary, Kemp approved some $400,000 in bonuses, with $92,000 going to 70 political cronies who served at Honest Jack's pleasure.

    According to news reports at the time, recipients included 28 individuals with vague positions as "special" or "staff" assistants. Also granted payments were confidential secretaries, advance people for Kemp 's travels, and press aides.

    Kemp defended the 11th-hour bonuses, claiming it would "...have been a slap in the face to the loyal and dedicated public servants who helped me clean up the corruption and redirect all policies away from bureaucracies and back to people and helped save millions, if not billions, in taxpayer dollars..."

    But it was also a slap in the face to career HUD employees, who anonymously complained to reporters that the Kemp rewarded his pals far more generously than them. You might also say that taxpayers were slapped in the face, given that Bush had promised spending cutbacks just months earlier. And with both parties insisting that the country was in a deficit crisis, it was hardly the time for a lame duck official to be tossing around public money. At the same time as Kemp's largesse, Clinton was proposing to freeze pay for all federal employes for a year, then limiting raises to a pittance.

    Some critics also noted that a few of the bonus recipents had suspiciously close ties to the new Empower America organization. This included Cheryl Weber, one of Kemp's "special" assistants and wife of Vin Weber, chairman of Kemp's 1988 presidential campaign. Vin Weber was now also co-director of Empower America. Another Kemp follower was Kevin Stack, press director for Empower America a month after losing a similar job at HUD.

    What does Kemp believe today?

    Kemp's mission to "empower the poor"while at HUD was a failure. During his four years, 3,500,000 more Americans sank into abject poverty -- hardly an indicator of superior job performance by Department workers deserving to be rewarded with cushy bonuses.

    Some -- including this writer -- would argue that Kemp wasn't to blame for HUD's lousy performance under his tenure. After the earlier Pierce scandals, the emphasis was on cleaning up the most digusting blots of corruption, not making the Department squeaky-clean. If 87 percent of the tax breaks went to the rich, at least HUD contracts were no longer peddled under the counter by Department brass, for fractions of a penny on the dollar. Everyone was grateful that there was simply some sort of reform.

    Also, Bush and his crew slighted Kemp, rarely taking his advice. Thus the HUD Secretary can't really be faulted for the failure to implement his ideas, right?

    Ah, but what were Kemp's ideas during those years, exactly? And what does Kemp believe today, as Republican Vice Presidential candidate?

    Gaining power is everything

    "The problem [with Jack Kemp] is that he does not believe that there are any enemies," Christian fundamentalist Paul Weyrich once complained. "He doesn't believe there are any evil forces."

    That's a good summary of the difference between Kemp and many others in the Grand Old Party. Never would Kemp be found thumping the bully pulpit against "welfare queens" or other wacky conservative stereotypes. It's also a major reason why Kemp appeals to moderates -- and even many liberals.

    But Kemp "The 'Big Idea' Guy" does have his enemies, as described by House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a revealing June 28, 1993 speech. Newt felt compelled to comment on a newspaper editorial written by Cal Thomas, entitled 'Kemp's Game Plan for GOP Triumph:'

    Mr. Kemp does believe in enemies and evil forces, but he also believes the way Republicans have chosen to overcome them are less effective than they once were. He wants to hold to principle while changing tactics. Mr. Kemp thinks applying the rhetoric of the 1980s to the 1990s will harm the GOP's chance to regain not only control of government, but also control of the economic and social agenda.

    Mr. Kemp sees 'social issues' as a seamless garment that ought not to be limited to abortion and gay rights. 'Education is a social issue,' he tells me. 'So (are) poverty, drugs, crime, teen pregnancy -- these bother a lot of liberals and Democrats as well as conservatives and Republicans.'

    Mr. Kemp believes that the way he speaks about these subjects is as important as the positions he takes. 'It's important to express it in a way in which you're not portrayed as uncivil or insensitive or judgmental or mean-spirited,' he says. 'It doesn't mean you're tolerant of evil. You can be intolerant of evil and still be tolerant of the plight of a person or family.'

    Here Gingrich portrays yet another face for Kemp: That of the Machiavellian politico. We Republicans can hang on to our sour old agenda, Newt summarizes Kemp as saying -- we just need to sweeten it a bit. And maybe we should smile a tad more often in public, even if it hurts. After all, gaining power is everything.

    Republicans had "missed the opportunity" to oppose racism

    Other interesting tidbits can be found in the Gingrich speech. Where Kemp is loathe to mention the volatile issue of abortion today, Newt wasn't so shy about revealing Kemp's gameplan:

    [Kemp] seeks a new way to address the abortion issue without compromising principle. Mr. Kemp would start at the fringes and work inward, restricting abortion in the third trimester, requiring parents to be notified before their minor child has an abortion, prohibiting federal funding of the operation, promoting adoption (a daughter and son-in-law recently adopted a child) and doing whatever is necessary to reduce the high number of abortions, now averaging 1.6 million per year.

    Again assuming that Gingrich isn't misrepresenting his friend, Kemp's opinion matches the standard Republican position on abortion -- except that Kemp wants to covertly 'work from the fringes inward' to achieve his intolerant goals.

    Comments like these call into question his convictions on social issues that he loudly champions. On civil rights, Kemp has been adamant: "This is my way of redeeming my existence on this earth," Kemp told reporters at a 1992 breakfast attended by the New York Times. "I wasn't there with Rosa Parks or Dr. King or John Lewis, but I am here now and I am going to yell from the rooftops about what we need to do."

    But Kemp continued by saying that Republicans had "missed the opportunity" to oppose racism during the civil rights movement, and he wasn't going to pass up this second chance.

    Once more, Kemp's speaking as a politician in the mold of Machiavelli: the Republicans didn't join the bandwagon when it began, so they'd better hop aboard now. Less clear is the depth of his conviction -- that he wants to help the disadvantaged simply because it's the right thing to do.

    Poised to remold the Republican party into his own image

    Kemp is not the only politician in camouflage this election year. The Clinton Administration seems determined to prove that it can be even more conservative -- or maybe, mean-spirited -- than the Republican Congress. Clinton has promised to sign a welfare "reform" bill now on his desk, despite pleas from Ralph Nader and others for him to veto it, with foes claiming that it will throw more than a million children into poverty.

    While the press has thrashed these Presidential hypocrisies endlessly, Kemp has escaped such scrutiny. Quietly working the party conventions, the rubber-chicken dinners, the prayer breakfasts, Kemp now has an army of supporters. Kemp now also has the Vice-Presidential slot -- the position of prince and heir-apparent to the GOP throne. After almost a decade of presidental politics, he is finally poised to remold the Republican party into his own image.

    Gingrich concluded in 1993: "If Jack Kemp has moved, it's not away from any core beliefs or values. It is toward an effective way of expressing them and using them to restore his party to power."

    Machiavelli couldn't have said it better.

    Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

    Albion Monitor August 12, 1996 (

    All Rights Reserved.

    Contact for permission to reproduce.

    Front Page