The Compassion Of Jack Kemp

JACK KEMP, the forgotten man of the Bush administration, suddenly has become the man of the hour in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots. So it seemed appropriate to reporters querying him over breakfast that the first question put to the secretary of housing and urban development was this:

"Haven't recent events positioned you beautifully for a run at the presidency in '96?" To which the man President Bush has selected to shape and lead the administration's response to the L.A. riots reacted quite negatively:

"For me to talk politics is an insult to the people I have told I would try to help. To even think about '96 is repulsive when you view the pain and tragedy - the incredibly bad economic and social conditions - in urban America."

Secretary Kemp talked about a "window of opportunity" for Democrats and Republicans to come together to deal with this immense problem. He said that job must be done within two months. "To mix this opportunity with politics," he said, "would be a historic mistake."

It was an impassioned Jack Kemp who was holding the stage at this morning breakfast session, revealing a philosophy that he said made him "the most radical, the most populist" person to hold the leadership of HUD.

So it was that all hour long Kemp was talking like this: "We must give people in the inner cities a stake in their community. We must get these areas flooded with capital. It is absolutely necessary to bring about a growing economy in the inner cities by injecting growth and jobs into areas that have been left out. There is a fundamental right to own property, irrespective of race, color, and religion."

This isn't a "new" Jack Kemp. He has been talking along these lines - promoting tax-incentive-primed enterprise zones for the inner cities and opportunities for the poor to buy their own homes - but only now is he being heard.

"You've been preaching this sermon to the administration for three years," one reporter broke in to say. "But it took riots in Los Angeles to awaken the White House. Why?"

"I don't share that premise," said Kemp. "There is no doubt in my mind that the president and Jack Kemp haven't done everything they should have done. If you want me to grovel and say we haven't done enough, I will say that. But if we haven't done enough, Congress has done even less."

Kemp added: "At least we are trying something new, and we want to get it through by the end of June."

The HUD secretary had a warning for the Republican Party: "Our party missed the first civil-rights revolution, and now I see this new revolution as the last chance for the Republican Party to be morally acceptable to the majority of the American people."

Some news developed at the breakfast. Kemp said that the president and he had agreed that all cities in America which qualified - because of high joblessness and their general economic plight - would be granted enterprise zones that included tax incentives and other benefits.

Proposed administration legislation appears to call for the program to be available to just 50 cities. Kemp said that the proposal will be "changed."

But it was the "passion" and the "liberalism" of Kemp that the reporters were talking about after the breakfast. The final questioner had probed for an answer to "how you came to this point of view," and this was Kemp's answer:

"My mother was a social worker in the '30s. My father was a small-businessman. I have a great belief from my parents of the obligation we have: When we've been blessed to try to be a blessing to other people."

Kemp spoke of being "captain on every team I played on." As such, he said, "you quickly come to this conclusion: If the team is to go forward, you can't leave anyone behind."

"The Good Shepherd," said Kemp, "proved his love for the 99 [sheep] by saving the stray lamb. I think the Good Shepherd model is the only way a society can function in a democracy such as ours."

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