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Commentary: Jack Kemp understood the difference between enemies and opponents

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2009 - The example of Jack Kemp stands in sharp contrast to much political discourse today, which tends to demonize opponents rather than fairly consider their views. During his prime moment in the national spotlight -- the 1996 vice-presidential debate -- Kemp demonstrated that politics need not be a contact sport in which the ends justify the means but can provide an opportunity to discuss important issues in a civil manner.

Kemp vigorously embraced the task of celebrating Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole’s impressive career of public service, but he refused to assume the traditional vice-presidential role as campaign hatchet man as some suggested he should. Kemp was interested in ideas, not vilifying opponents, and the political low road was not a path he traveled even when it might have seemed the most expedient route to the desired destination.

The 1996 vice-presidential debate between Kemp and Al Gore stands as one of the most substantively rich and civilized of the 34 presidential and vice-presidential debates since 1960. Kemp helped set the tone when he responded to Jim Lehrer’s first question regarding Republican criticisms of Dole’s failure “to draw personal and ethical differences between him and President Clinton.”

“Bob Dole and myself do not see Al Gore and Bill Clinton as our enemy,” Kemp replied. “We see them as our opponents. This is the greatest democracy in the world. People are watching not only throughout this country, but all over the world as to how this democracy can function with civility and respect, and decency and integrity. … These issues will be aired, but they'll be aired with dignity and respect, and, ultimately, leave it to the American people to make up their minds about who should be the leader of this country into the 21st century.”

Kemp and Gore proceeded to air their competing substantive political visions for the 90 minutes in a civil exchange of ideas. Gore celebrated the accomplishments of the Clinton-Gore first term and discussed specific programs to which they were committed. Kemp argued that the economy was operating well below capacity because Americans were overtaxed and over-regulated, a refrain he sounded again and again. He called for flattening tax rates and relying on economic incentives, not federal regulation, to address societal problems.

Kemp referred to Gore as “my friend”; Gore spoke of his “enormous respect” for Kemp and Dole whom he described as “good men.”  

Kemp did not elevate political discourse that evening simply by discussing ideas in a civil fashion, although that in itself was a substantial contribution. He also spoke eloquently of the values of a pluralistic society and the need to make the American Dream accessible to all Americans.

“I'm trying to make a bigger point. That civility cannot return to our country unless every person feels that they have an equal shot at the American dream,” he said. “That if you're born in this country to be a mezzo-soprano or a master carpenter or a school teacher, like my daughter, or a professional football quarterback, nothing should be in your way.”

Kemp’s theme was quite different from that of some prior Republican national candidates who used racial code words and blamed the poor for their plight. “It is not the values of the poor that should be called into question, it is the values of the welfare system from Washington … that prevent people from climbing out of poverty, “ he said.

America needed to reject “exclusionary policies,” he said. “It is so very important for Americans, white and black, Jew and Christian, immigrant and native-born, to sit down and talk and listen and begin to understand what it's like to come from that different perspective.”

Kemp understood that America could only hope to export its ideals if it made them work at home.

“Civility, responsibility, racial reconciliation, healing the wounds of our country has to be one of the greatest, most singularly important goals for this country here on the edge of the 21st Century,” he said. “How in the name of American democracy can we say to eastern Europe that democratic capitalism will work there if we can't make it work in East L.A. or East Harlem or East Palo Alto, California? How can we tell South Africa and the new Mandela government that democracy and private property and limited government and the rule of law and civility will work there if it's not working in our own backyard here at home or the South Bronx? How can America go into the next century and leave so many people behind?”

Gore said it well that night. “[T]hroughout most of his career, Jack Kemp has been a powerful and needed voice against the kind of coarseness and incivility that [moderator Jim Lehrer had referred to in a question]. I think it's an extremely valuable service to have a voice within the Republican Party who says we ought to be one nation. We ought to cross all of the racial and ethnic and cultural barriers. I think that is a very important message to deliver. … I compliment Mr. Kemp for the leadership he has shown in moving us away from that kind of attitude.”

It’s an example many could follow today.

Joel K. Goldstein is an authority on the vice presidency and a professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law.

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