Life Watch: Jack’s Back

An announcement in the public service: The demands of lead time now in magazines find us writing these columns well in advance of the date of publication, and the risk is that we may be overtaken by events. We are writing, for example, for this issue at the time of the Republican convention: Things may change, but right now it looks as though Eisenhower will be nominated for a second term.

But the news of the past week was the selection of Jack Kemp as the running mate for Bob Dole, and that event promises to produce an effect that lasts well into October and beyond. For the party as a whole the effect was buoying, as the prospects for the election seemed to change dramatically in a matter of days and hours. For the pro-lifers the effect was upbeat, hopeful, but not exactly buoyant. Two cheers, or a muted clap, clap, clap. And therein lies a story.

For the old Jack Kemp, who used to attend the meetings of National Right to Life, the congressman who aligned himself clearly on the pro-life side, there would have been, for us, an ecstasy bordering on disbelief that we could ever have been so lucky. But that Jack Kemp seemed to have disappeared several years ago, and his steady absence from the landscape had now been absorbed. No one, that is, noticed any longer his absence from the pro-life movement.

Yet, his sudden re-emergence, his unexpected return from the politically dead, brought with it the hopes of revival: Perhaps, just perhaps, the Kemp who returned might indeed be the old Kemp. And with that, memories ran back.

They ran back, in my own case, eight years, to the meetings of the National Right to Life Committee in 1988, during the week of the Democatic convention. The Democrats were nominating Michael Dukakis, but George Bush, the pro-life candidate, did not come in person to this pro-life meeting, in the Washington area, with his firmest supporters. He sent instead a videotape—and Jack Kemp. The appearance of Kemp in the hall set off, spontaneously, the chants—”Jack for V.P., Jack for V.P.” George Bush had not yet made the selection of a running mate, and there was no question as to who would have been the first preference for those pro-lifers assembled in their own convention.

But even more striking than the feeling for Kemp in the crowd was the turn of mind shown by Kemp himself. I had been speaking at this convention, and so I was especially tuned in to Kemp’s performance. He remarked that Michael Dukakis had spoken, during his acceptance speech, of the grandchild that he and his family were expecting with the pregnancy of his daughter-in-law. It was an innocent remark, as Kemp pointed out, but telling: Dukakis had referred to a “child”; he was not apparently suffering any epistemological doubts about the nature of that being in the womb. He knew what it was, and it was not merely a “fetus.” Kemp suggested that this was a perfectly simple, apt point that might be raised in a conversation or debate. No special strain, no sense that we are doing anything that runs beyond the wit of ordinary people as we insist on discussing in public this question of abortion, this question running deep, which people, for some reason, did not quite know how to begin discussing.

And then Kemp said: We can have a conversation with Michael Dukakis on these things. He is our adversary, or opponent; he is not our enemy. And a good opponent can improve us; he can bring us to a higher pitch, as he gives us the occasion to make, and to sharpen, our own argument.

I paraphrase here rather than quote, because I am reaching back eight years; but I can paraphrase with close recall because I found his words, and his performance, riveting. They were, as we used to say, so manly. They conveyed civility and confidence, and the notion that the public arena was indeed a fitting place to make the most serious arguments without losing the sense of proportion, or the sense of the bonds that connected us to our political adversaries. I had not heard anything exactly like it before from a political man, and I haven’t heard anything quite like it since. About a week later, Bush chose Dan Quayle as his running-mate, and the contrast with Kemp deepened my own sense of puzzlement: If Bush knew, up close, the man I had seen—if he had known then what was available to him—his decision to pass up such a man seemed all the more inexplicable.

I posed the question to a friend who was also a close adviser to George Bush, and he remarked, in an affably cryptic way, that in selecting among the available choices, one finds that “every little animal has his stripe.” Everyone, that is, has certain defects or liabilities that are not as evident to people who may view him from afar. In the case of Kemp, certain flaws seemed to become a bit more pronounced with age, but the main disappointment was that some of his virtues became noticeably muted. The man who was once willing to enter into the discussion of the “life” issues with confidence now seemed to take it as an operating code to recede from these subjects altogether. It was not that he couldn’t make the arguments any longer, but that he would not.

The reports filtering back from people who knew him offered a variety of speculations and inferences: Talk about abortion was not exactly happy talk. One could affirm life, but it was hard to talk about abortion without casting reproaches and being, as they say, judgmental. Kemp, it seemed, was less and less disposed to the kind of talk that cast judgments on his hearers. He was far more inclined by temperament to talk that was upbeat. And so it would be growth and taxes Uber alles. We may be in the middle of a culture war, with an ethic of euthanasia spreading among the courts and the populace. We may have a judiciary intent on advancing the claims of gay rights even if it means the disestablishing of marriage. And in face of these trends, we are apparently to believe that the conservative party can say nothing more emphatic and germane on the subject than to promise economic growth—the growth that heals and salves and somehow overcomes our moral faults.

Several talented writers of speeches moved in and out of Jack Kemp’s shop as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. They offered, as pro-lifers, the kinds of words that Kemp used to speak, but he would speak them no more. In the meantime, in a party that was seeking to get past the retrograde unions in education and construction, Kemp preserved an attachment to the unions. In a party marshaling, over the years, the argument against racial assignments in hiring and contracting, Kemp would exert his force to preserve affirmative action, with its hiring by race. With each season, he seemed to become more and more out of phase, out of sync, and then, finally, out of control. At one meeting or another, he would lose his temper and his focus. Two years ago, at a dinner sponsored by the National Review, I thought he was going to fly, in a fit, off the podium and land in my salad. That did it for me; I declared myself, that night, “off the Kemp bandwagon.”

But now, here he was—for the Dole campaign, a burst of energy, and for the rest of us, a force lifting us out of the trough. Even overnight the polls began to close, and surveys indicated that about 45 percent of the public had not given much attention yet to this election and their vote. By all reckoning, the gap should close, and if Dole-Kemp start running even with Clinton-Gore, there is likely to be a stronger tilt in the electoral college to the Republicans. And a Republican victory would bring into office a pro-life administration.

Still? Yes, still, even though the pro-life argument was muffled, to put it mildly, during the convention. In fact, we could point to this curious identity in the conventions of the two parties: In neither party was the pro-life argument allowed to be expressed on television. The pro-lifers among the Republicans made a calculation of prudence: The pro-choicers were the ones most likely to defect, and so they were the ones who had to be placated. All of that may not matter if a pro-life party takes office, with a pro-life Congress, and begins to alter the very structure of the argument on abortion by starting to enact into law the first restrictions on abortion. But if the marketing strategy of the convention fails, the pro-lifers may have acquiesced in something quite portentous: They have implicitly accepted the  notion that the pro-life argument is something that cannot be made in public without imperiling the party. Even now, there does not seem to be, among the pro-lifers, a vivid sense of how much moral lever­age is foregone when we help to plant that kind of an understanding.

But that brings us back to Kemp. The worry is that the new Jack Kemp would lend himself quite readily to the tendency, in the Republican establishment, to rid itself of the issue of abortion, as something that is merely part of the past. On the other hand, certain things cannot be effaced, and what is unmistakably clear from the past is that Jack Kemp knows the arguments about abortion and he knows how to make them deftly. It is also as certain as anything can be in this world that Kemp, as a candidate, will be asked about abortion; and when he is, we can expect now that the case will be made by a candidate, more than we had any reason, months ago, to expect.

And yet there is something more: In attaching himself to the Dole campaign, Kemp has had to modify his positions on affirmative action and other things, to bring them into line more closely with that of his party. It is arguable that the line of his party is closer to the real strengths of Jack Kemp, and that the tether of this discipline is the tether that benignly ends, for Jack Kemp, his freedom to float into the political stratosphere. Jack Kemp constrained may be Jack Kemp concentrating his fuller powers. Bound now, harnessed, to the obligations of his party, Jack Kemp may be, if not the old jack Kemp, the best Jack Kemp yet.


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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