Jack Kemp, who died Saturday at age 73, will best be remembered for tax cuts and an infectious smile. It is the smile, however, that represented his most important contribution to American politics. And it is to that aspect of his political life that his fellow Republicans should look for inspiration.
A staunch Republican, Kemp also was capable of reaching across the aisle. When he did, though, it was not bipartisanship so much as simple humanity. Kemp embodied a cheerful ideology that went beyond economics to include racial minorities. On that, he should have been heeded more.
A former congressman, presidential candidate, Cabinet secretary and vice presidential nominee, Kemp began his career as a professional football player. He led the Buffalo Bills to back-to-back league championships in 1964 and '65. (That was in the old American Football League before it merged with the NFL.)
With his days as a quarterback behind him, he ran for a Buffalo-area House seat in 1970, claiming his athletic career had prepared him well
"Pro football," he said, "gave me a good sense of perspective to enter politic: I'd already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy."
He served 18 years in Congress and was briefly a presidential candidate in 1988 before endorsing George H.W. Bush, who subsequently named him secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He was the GOP's vice-presidential nominee in 1996.
Kemp is best known for his advocacy of supply-side economics and the attendant focus on cutting taxes. But he also repeatedly urged his party to reach out to minorities. And it is that effort that should be his legacy.
Kemp's views on economic policy now are Republican orthodoxy, but if his party is not to go the way of the Whigs, it needs to adopt his attitude toward minorities, as well.
Kemp came by his take on race naturally, in part out of respect for his football teammates. As he famously said, he had showered with more blacks than most Republicans had ever met.
But his party chose not to emphasize that part of his message, and the results of that dismissal have been reflected at the polls. A number of factors were at play - including Barack Obama - but John McCain won only 4 percent of the black vote. Among Latinos and Asian voters, he got only 30 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
No political organization can claim to be a national party in the 21st century with numbers like those, a fact Kemp understood. As he wrote after last year's election, "The party of Lincoln needs to rethink and revisit its historic roots as a party of emancipation, liberation, civil rights and equality of opportunity for all."
Whatever Kemp was advocating, he said it with that smile and a genuine warmth. In urging the GOP to be more racially inclusive, he was being neither condescending to minorities nor politically cynical. He was expressing honest hospitality.
Kemp's ideas on economics and tax policy can be argued either way. Supply-side economics is controversial, and tax cuts as the answer to everything smacks more of political expedience than sound policy. Besides, deciding things like that is why we have elections.
Jack Kemp's inclusive attitude toward his fellow Americans, however, and the honest concern he had for them, are positions both parties can and should embrace.