I was intrigued by a recent segment on Up w/ Steve Kornacki that was a retrospective on Rep. Jack Kemp (1935–2009) within the context of new Republican Party outreach efforts to racial minorities.
I met Jack Kemp three or four times in 1988 in Iowa while he was campaigning for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. I was the founding President of the Kossuth County Teenage Republicans and wanted the GOP's nomination to go to either George H. W. Bush, then Vice-President under Ronald Reagan, or Congressman Kemp who represented New York's 38th District, a long-standing GOP New York "Eastern Establishment" stronghold (since 1939). It was represented in 1959–1963 by Jessica M. Weis (in 1948 she was the first woman to second the nomination for a presidential candidate by doing so for Thomas E. Dewey at the national convention in Philadelphia) and in 1963–1968 by liberal Republican Charles Goodell.
I went from teenage Republican to Democrat by the time I was old enough to register to vote and in less than a handful of years. In the late 1980's, my interest in politics was an end in and of itself. Politics for me wasn't entirely or even mainly about ideology except insofar as I was something of a Cold War warrior in mentality. I liked realpolitik internationalist types who fit a sort of JFK-shaped mold I had in mind. To me, Bush and Kemp fit that mold. Certainly, one of their competitors for the party's nomination did not: Pentecostal television preacher Pat Robertson. I found him totally off-putting. But Robertson would go on to place second in the Iowa Caucuses with 25% of the vote behind Rep. Bob Dole with 37%. Bush and Kemp garnered 19% and 11% respectively.
Robertson's success, though short-lived within the '88 nomination cycle itself, was a sign of things to come for the GOP. I know exactly when I started to dislike Pat Robertson and it pre-dated his run for office. Though I couldn't have known it at the time, the moment that I came to thoroughly dislike Robertson was also a small but very sure step--perhaps the first--along a path to Democratic Party membership. It was when I heard Robertson gravely warn of the Satanic nature of the game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Yep.
It was during a broadcast of the 700 Club, a religious television show he hosted on his own network. The show usually included a heavy emphasis on politics, human interest stories, and Robertson's prophecies. He also miraculously healed unnamed people through their television screens, sometimes of hemorrhoids.
It's an unlikely sort of political consciousness-raising moment. But, it was telling: Robertson was a public political figure, a leader of the religious right-wing, and therefore strongly focused on societal issues...even tabletop games. I had played role-playing games similar to D&D, and what Robertson said that evening on the 700 Club, like countless other of his comments before and since, was asinine. But, stunningly, Republicans in the future would later beat Robertson on the asininity scale: charges of Bill Clinton "body counts," cries of Affordable Care Act "death panels," conspiracy theories of Barack Obama being a foreign-born crypto-Muslim, and--along the way--other everything from Tinky Winky's purple triangular antenna to SpongeBob SquarePants's supposed gay agenda.
Robertson was the future of the GOP mindset that would be fuelled further by conservative PACs and think tanks as well as a conservative media echo chamber that includes sermons and conversations in conservative evangelical churches and Bible studies, and the massive conservative Christian media empire spanning radio, television, print, and online. The likes of Jack Kemp would become fewer. And not because Kemp was liberal, either. He was no liberal. But because Kemp's social conservatism was actually interested in governance, policy, and notions of community. He was comfortable with racial diversity. He understood the importance of America's cities. He was also a happy warrior. His work for conservative ideals was not based in anger or resentment. These qualities certainly wouldn't sit well with today's Tea Party.
From the religious right of the 1980s to the Tea Party of today is not as long or as complicated of a political evolutionary path as you might think. Studies by Pew and other institutions and academics have revealed the close connection between the Tea Party and the religious right-wing.* Tea Party leaders stress that the movement is about libertarianism. Maybe it is, to a point, but look just under the surface and it's often much about social conservatism, too.
Before Kemp, liberal Republican Charles Goodell had been ousted from that same Congressional seat by a challenger from the right. Kemp's election solidified the district's solidly conservative Republican reputation. But, nowadays, Kemp himself would probably be in the cross-hairs of the Tea Party. Kemp just wasn't the sort to despise a president or government so much as to shout "You lie!" during our republic's head of state's annual address to Congress.
Maybe the religious right's best days are behind it, and maybe the Tea Party movement has crested, too. John Boehner certainly seems fed-up with it. And Politico is asking, "Is Paul Ryan the GOP's Next Jack Kemp?" We'll see.
Photo: Jack Kemp, former Congressman and United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.