Remembering the Quarterback for Freedom’

Posted May 5, 2009 at 6:27pm

On and off the field, Jack Kemp played his position with sure hands and a compassionate heart. That position, as I called it, was “quarterback for freedom,— a role he assumed effortlessly and selflessly throughout the span of his career.

He was a conservative through and through, of that there was no question, but he possessed a great sense of empathy and community, of respect and a fondness for diversity, that uniquely set him apart. The story goes that his time on the football field enamored him of his black colleagues and etched into his mind how repugnant inequality and discrimination could be.

That experience undoubtedly moved him. But it is my belief that such reverence for the dignity of man — regardless of skin color, race or ethnicity — came innately and naturally to him. For Jack, “compassionate— was not a buzzword placed in front of “conservative— without thought or care. He lived, embodied and applied compassionate activism to his impressive life’s work, a work outmatched only by his intensity of spirit and undeniable warmth.

“Civility cannot return to our country unless every person feels that they have an equal shot at the American dream,— he once 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?—

Jack was not an ideologue or political lecturer. He emerged as a statesman instead, far more committed to improving the lot of the American people than scoring cheap points in some political game. While we disagreed on some of the issues, most notably his enthusiasm for the Reagan tax cuts, we were in absolute lock step in our commitment to rebuilding our cities, particularly in terms of housing and economic development. As Housing and Urban Development secretary, Jack met with minority groups, championed public housing and worked with Members like myself, who sat across the aisle, on issues such as revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods through empowerment zones.

When he ran for vice president, Jack campaigned in Harlem, a visit billed as the first from a Republican candidate for president in at least half a century. Many expected raucous demonstrations from the residents in my community — more because of the (R) after his name than because they knew much about Jack Kemp to begin with. No such exchange occurred. I warmly greeted Jack at a local restaurant, Sylvia’s, and we traded good-natured barbs: He told me that in a Bob Dole administration, I would be drug czar; I responded that in a Bill Clinton administration, I would be chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Jack was a veritable hero and inspiration. It is in that light that we remember him today: in awe of his dedication to accomplishment, in reverence of his conviction.

Rep. Charlie Rangel is a Democrat from New York.