WHAT Jack Kemp said or did not say about affirmative action at a Monitor breakfast recently has become a much-discussed subject in Washington.
Mr. Kemp was widely quoted as attacking the Republican opposition to affirmative action. He soon issued a statement saying this judgment in the press had gone too far - that he had been taken out of context.
Well, I was at that breakfast and heard Kemp's words firsthand. I have also listened to the tape. He clearly was stating his opposition to the GOP position on affirmative action when he told us his party ''would find it hard to govern the country if it runs a campaign that separates people by race and by gender.'' And beyond any doubt, he told us he would vote against the position taken by California Gov. Pete Wilson when Wilson led the majority of University of California regents in ending minority preferences in university hiring and admissions.
Indeed, the whole feeling of Kemp's remarks that morning was of a man who was very unhappy with the racial thrust coming from his party's leadership. Yet his post-breakfast ''correction'' reflects some second thoughts in which this one-time favorite for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination wants it known that he isn't really jumping ship.
He still sticks with presidential candidate Bob Dole, even though the Senate majority leader now has introduced legislation that would go beyond a recent Supreme Court ruling and end federal race- and gender-based affirmative-action programs.
But in all fairness to Kemp it should be said, I think, that he was really trying to leave us with the impression that he held a ''moderate,'' in-between position on the affirmative-action issue. While denouncing what he saw as moves that went too far, such as Wilson's, he more than once said it was ''legitimate'' for Republicans to examine the effectiveness and equity of existing programs designed to aid women and minorities for past discrimination.
What Kemp seemed most interested in that morning, as I saw it, was that his party ''runs on tax reform and economic issues rather than on reducing immigration by one-third or stopping affirmative action.''
In his post-breakfast comments Kemp said to a reporter, ''I didn't make myself clear. All I was saying was that we should not run a race in 1996 based on race.'' Kemp did say at one point during the breakfast that ''it is putting the cart before the horse ... to throw out all affirmative action without any idea of what is going to replace it.''
Well, what should we conclude about these apparently varying Kemp quotes? Is this a politician who says one thing one day and then, after his words have a damaging impact that he didn't anticipate, tries to change the record with a denial? Even presidents do this - coming out with a statement in which they insist that they ''misspoke'' on this or that subject.
I don't think so. Kemp is the rare kind of political figure who sits around with the press at breakfast and kind of talks things over with us. He doesn't come in with answers that have obviously been prepared and rehearsed. Instead, there's a delightful spontaneity in Kemp that certainly sounds like candor.
I think Kemp is a compassionate man. Indeed, I believe his record over the years shows his sensitivity to race issues. But in his informal chatting with us I believe Kemp's candor got him into trouble. He really wasn't ready to turn his back on his party leaders, even those who disagree with his questioning of affirmative action.
Perhaps he thinks that by staying behind them he will be able to moderate their positions on racial issues, including affirmative action.