Lessons from Jack Kemp

May 5, 2009

 Diana Furchtgott-Roth — Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The views expressed are her own. —

Jack Kemp, who died on May 2 at the age of 73, lived the American dream as the football star who was elected to the House of Representatives. He had the vision to translate his intellectual ideas into the practical tax cuts, housing vouchers, and enterprise zones that sparked not only the Reagan revolution in America but also similar economic revolutions in many countries around the globe.

Jack Kemp spent his life as a champion of the little guy, the forgotten man, the person left behind in a world too busy to care. It is easy to look to other way and ignore the cries of the weak and the helpless. Jack Kemp could have done that. But Jack Kemp always stopped to listen. And when he listened, he stood up for the downtrodden.

His economic plan for America had a consistent theme: help the little guy. For Kemp, that meant letting him prosper and getting the government off of his back. That would work in America, and that would work around the world. Kemp spent much of his career trying to get oppressive governments off the backs of the forgotten.

Take the Soviet Union, for example. Today, almost 20 years after its demise, we can see from hindsight that the system was doomed. Yet in the early 1970s it was not obvious.

In 1974, four years after Kemp was first elected to Congress, he was a co-sponsor of the Jackson-Vanik amendment that called for eliminating trade negotiations and all scientific, educational, and cultural exchange missions with the Soviet Union until the country restored freedom. The Soviet Union was crushing dissent at home and sending refuseniks to die in gulags. Jack Kemp heard and stood up for the forgotten Russians. The Jackson-Vanik amendment was passed and signed by President Gerald Ford in 1975.

Jack Kemp kept his eye on the Soviet Empire and the people it crushed. In 1978, he introduced a resolution urging the U.S. Olympic Committee to hold the 1980 Summer Olympic Games outside the Soviet Union. The next year, it was a resolution urging the Soviet government to “end the oppression of Jews in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” It would have been easy to look the other way. Jack Kemp didn’t.

In 1985, he introduced a resolution that supported President Reagan’s decision to discuss Soviet human rights violations against the people of Afghanistan with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and called on him to reiterate the U.S. desire to achieve a negotiated political settlement agreeable to all parties in Afghanistan. This included withdrawal of foreign troops, restoration of an independent and sovereign Afghanistan, and the safe return of Afghan refugees. Most Americans could not find Afghanistan on a map. Jack Kemp knew it was filled with people crushed by the Soviet Union and forgotten by the world.

Kemp also fought for a free people in Poland. In 1984, he sponsored a bill that “authorizes the use of a specified amount of Economic Support Fund money for agricultural activities in Poland which are managed by the Polish Catholic Church or other nongovernmental organizations”. In 1987, he introduced a joint resolution that specifically provided aid to the Polish independent trade union organization Solidarity. It would have been easy to ignore the people of Poland but Jack Kemp didn’t.

Kemp did not forget the people of Hong Kong facing more than a billion people in the People’s Republic of China. That country wanted to take over Hong Kong without regard to the wishes of its people. Jack Kemp introduced a resolution supporting the self-determination of the people of Hong Kong, saying that without the agreement of its citizens, new government will not be imposed. Unfortunately the principle of self-determination was pushed aside and China moved its forces into Hong Kong. Now the only people of Hong Kong who live free are the ones who were able to escape.

After America left Vietnam, most American politicians wanted to forget about the Vietnamese. Not Jack Kemp. In 1979, he attempted to help Vietnamese who wanted to come to the United States. Kemp introduced a concurrent resolution to help refugees and to establish a consular office in Vietnam for those wishing to emigrate.

In countries from Angola to Nicaragua to Israel, on every continent, Jack Kemp fought for the forgotten man and against oppressive governments. He could have looked the other way. He could have appeased the totalitarians. He could have ignored the cries of the weak. Not Jack Kemp.

Jack Kemp’s life provides valuable lessons for the leaders of today. Stand up for principle, even though the probability of success might initially appear small. Just as the Soviet Union fell and democracy spread across the globe, we have the power to defeat dictators who are funding terrorism and want to bring the West to its knees.


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Thanks to Jack Kemp, who was often ridiculed, the world is a better place. Thank you for remembering him and for reminding us.

Posted by Avanna | Report as abusive

What did Jack Kemp do for U.S. citizens? And how is the world a better place now compared to 40 years ago?

Gerald Fords crew ran the U.S. ship of state aground under Bush II.

The plight of Soviet block dissidents was merely the product of the cold war. The “Evil Empire” was defeated and now all of central Asia is awash with violence and extremism.

Angola, Nicaragua, China and all the rest did not choose the form of governments we approved. Sun Tzu teaches that even the brutal rule of a task master Emperor is not immune to the wrath of the subjects he oppresses. It was John Locke who taught the power of all governments comes from the people’s consent to be ruled. We should support self determination and not undermine it as we have done for over 50 years.

As for human rights have we descended to a new low with Abu Graib, Guantanamo and Bagram prisons. President Obama states that detainees at Bagram can be held incommunicado, indefinitely. No habeus corpus, no legal representation, no ability to challenge why someone is being held and no contact with the outside world. It has been rumored that most of the Guantanamo detainees will be moved to Bagram. Don’t believe me. Just read the released reports by the ICRC.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive