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Jack Kemp: The True Purple Nation Leader

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It was the second night of Passover, in spring 2007. Jack and Joanne Kemp were with us at our Seder table.

The story of the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt is told, year-after-year, in a small book called the Haggadah, recited for centuries in one form or another in Jewish homes throughout the world.

Since 1993, my wife Carolyn has written a special dedication each year for the personal family Haggadah she had put together. Her dedication each year was to someone, or a group of people, whom she believed to be the most inspiring example of courage and integrity during the previous year.

When it came time to read the designee for our 2007 Seder, whom Carolyn had selected before we knew that the Kemps could attend, Carolyn read the following:

"This year we dedicate our Seder to the late President Gerald Ford and the ideal he represented for public servants who, for the sake of our country, should seek 'the higher ground of moderation and unselfish unity.' We resolve to hold all our nation's public servants to this standard rather than the standard of political expediency."

I was sitting at one end of the Seder table, Jack at the other end. (Carolyn had strategically arranged the seating to be sure that Jack and I were seated as far apart as possible so we wouldn't be tempted to spend the entire Seder dinner debating politics).

As Carolyn completed the reading -- and as she read the words "the higher ground of moderation and unselfish unity" -- I held up my wine glass and nodded to Jack. He held his glass and nodded to me. We gave each other a silent toast.

He knew, and I knew that he knew, that I regarded him as perfectly described by these words about Mr. Ford.

By "moderation" that doesn't mean middle-of-the-road. Not even close.

Jack was clearly a man of the right on the issues. He was a classic Reagan conservative. He believed in the private market, tax cuts for the wealthy and on capital gains, and thus, in "supply side" economics. On most social issues, he was also conservative -- strongly pro-life and pro-prayer in public schools (with an opt-out available for children who did not wish to participate). He believed in a strong national defense.

But ...he was willing to oppose the Republican conservative mainstream at times when his conscience dictated a different position. In 1994, when he was the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, he effectively took himself out of the running for the nomination by choosing to go to California, defy the Republican conservative base, and campaign against Proposition 187, which would have blocked the state from providing basic social services to illegal immigrants.

Why? "What will happen to children from illegal immigrant families who get sick and show up at the emergency room of a public hospital?" he asked. "Does the Republican Party want to stand for the answer, 'go away'?"

And most of all, through the years, he stood for outreach to minorities and poor people -- more so, perhaps, than any Republican since Abraham Lincoln. As Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993, he proposed more than 50 programs to combat urban blight and homelessness. "I can't help but care about the rights of black people I showered with in football locker rooms," he once said, only half in jest.

I suppose the moment that most bonded me to Jack was when I called him in August 2006 to ask if he'd go to Connecticut to campaign for Sen. Joe Lieberman, my long-time friend from Yale days and godfather to my oldest son. The senator had just lost a Democratic primary in Connecticut because he had supported President Bush on the Iraq war.

I knew Jack regarded Joe as a liberal -- which he was and still is, voting 90 percent with fellow Democratic senators. I also knew that Jack (and I) disagreed with Joe's position on the Iraq invasion. Yet, Jack's answer to my request for help to support Joe did not surprise me.

"Of course I'll support Joe," he said, without a second's hesitation. "When do I go?

"Thanks, Jack," I said. "Joe will really appreciate this."

"Don't thank me," he responded. "Thank Joe -- for standing for civility and decency in politics. And for having the courage of his convictions."

So now Jack Kemp is gone. And I shall miss him.

Virtually every weekday night, as I satisfy my usual addiction -- watching cable TV evening political shows, I will think of Jack. I will miss his voice of decent and principled conservatism. When I see certain hosts and guests on some nightly cable shows who attack the motives and demonize those with whom they disagree, and don't allow for a balanced presentation by someone with a different viewpoint, I will especially miss Jack.

I will remember the many, many occasions after we had gone after each other vigorously on camera over differing views on various issues, we would then leave the studio together. Jack would often put his arm around me, sometimes patting me on the back. I knew what he was saying to me silently: "It's OK if you are wrong. You're still a good person."

His good friend and fellow born-again Christian, Charles Colson, a former senior aide to Richard Nixon who himself was convicted of a felony relating to the Watergate cover-up, perhaps summed up Jack best when he spoke at the memorial service Friday at D.C.'s National Cathedral to a standing room-only crowd, a crowd that spanned the political and media spectrum with a breadth that would have made Jack proud.

Colson said of Jack (I am paraphrasing):

'He probably never could have been elected president -- because he could never run an attack ad, he could never be mean-spirited to a political opponent, he always spoke with conviction while respecting his opponent.'

I named this column "Purple Nation" with political leaders like Jack Kemp very much in mind. He was, in the final analysis, the ultimate "purple" leader -- a man who stood firm on his conservative convictions, yet willing to reach out and debate liberals like me and many others with respect and always a smile on his face.

At Friday's memorial service celebrating Jack's life, the program included the famous poem, titled "The Bridge Builder," which so perfectly described Jack's approach to life and politics. Here is the last, and very apt, verse:

"This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him."

Good bye, dear friend Jack. May your soul rest in peace.

And may God bless you, as I am sure He will.

# # # # #

Lanny J . Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America."

This article appeared in Mr. Davis' regular Monday weekly column, "Purple Nation," in the Washington Times today, May 11, 2009.

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