By: AIF Staff
Jack Kemp was a unique leader. He was “the football player turned congressman, Cabinet Secretary and GOP anti-poverty crusader,” who inspired scores of legislators, community leaders, and future public servants.
Jack Kemp continues to be revered because he had an inclusive approach to public policy, one that recognized the dignity and inherent worth of every American’s experience and point of view. He possessed an eternal optimism, believing that lawmakers could help people and communities through economic policies like opportunity zones.
Jack Kemp’s personal impact on American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan is undeniable, and his impact on many Americans was equally profound. A new documentary, titled The Jack Kemp Playbook, putsKemp’s life, legacy, and worldview in proper perspective while also capturing how “a famed quarterback turned political icon reached across the aisle and brought out the best in everyone.”
As the American Idea Foundation works to expand economic opportunities by highlighting success stories occurring in communities across the country, Jack Kemp’s approach to public policy inspires us on a daily basis. A preview of The Jack Kemp Playbook, which is currently airing on FOXNation, is available here.
Andrew Walworth, one of the film’s producers, summed up Kemp’s approach and its current relevance in a recent Fox News op-ed:
“Kemp’s empowerment agenda also promised to raise up the poor and provide minorities with their shot at the American Dream. No Republican has ever stood as boldly for racial equality, and none did more to design policies with the explicit aim of solving the problems of the inner cities….
“Crucially relevant in this era of highly personalized partisan nastiness, Jack Kemp believed that politics was primarily a competition of ideas. For him, politics was not about personal advancement or attack, but about imagining policies, testing them, and moving forward.”
Legislators continue to realize that Kemp’s approach to fighting poverty, to battling over ideas rather than impugning motives, to building solutions and strengthening communities one person at a time, is a winning one.
In 2016, at the height of a contentious Republican Presidential primary, two acolytes of Jack Kemp’s, then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina hosted the “Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity,” which gave many of the leading presidential candidates a chance to talk about their plans to give more people the chance to realize their version of the American Dream.
Around the summit, Speaker Ryan and Senator Scott channeled Kemp’s locally-driven approach and called for the federal government to do better when it comes to fighting poverty. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, they said in part:
“Both of us have seen firsthand the good work being done in our communities—from the Goodwill in Greenville, S.C., to Catholic Charities in Janesville, Wis., to the House of Help City of Hope in Washington, D.C. The federal government treats these groups as little more than social workers with street cred.
“But they’re much more than that; they’re social entrepreneurs. Precisely because they have credibility, they can get through to people others can’t. The federal government should assist the people and communities leading these efforts, not elbow them out of the way. Along these lines, the other author here, House Speaker Ryan, has proposed giving states and communities flexibility to try different solutions. We need to take the focus in Washington off intentions and put it on results.”
As a policy staffer, Speaker Ryan had the opportunity to travel around the country with Jack Kemp and see first-hand how having inclusive, opportunity-focused policies could make a tangible difference in people’s lives. As he told Mort Kondracke for the Kemp Oral History Project:
“What I enjoyed about traveling with [Jack] was that people of all walks of life, people of all backgrounds, people of all ethnicities, and all races gravitated toward this man and they really liked him. They liked him because they knew he cared. They knew that he actually was trying to make a positive difference in people’s lives and that he didn’t have a racist bone in his body. He had ideas that really gave people a sense of optimism that they could make it.”
Speaker Ryan has taken these lessons from Jack Kemp and infused them into his elected and post-elected career. In fact, the idea that all Americans should be given the opportunity to succeed and realize their full potential is at the heart of his Foundation’s mission. As Ryan told the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute a few years ago:
“Too many people are getting left behind. They’re being isolated, and we can do better. As a moral society, it’s our obligation to do better. Not just in government, but just as people in our communities. When we see our fellow citizens being isolated, falling through the cracks, missing their potential, we have an obligation to help fix that.
“We’ve got to see the successful stories: Violence-free zones at Pulaski High and at Rufus King; Victor Barnett at Running Rebels; Milwaukee Working, which is a really cool program. We’ve got to see what they’re doing, and not federalize it or institutionalize it but just support it. That means open up this space for civil society, protect what they’re doing, retell their story, and amplify their efforts. That means with our dollars from private charity, yes, but also with our time and our talents….
“If you care about upward mobility, about prosperity, about freedom, about a flourishing life where you can do what you want — you need to get involved and fight for a civil society and for community.”
Just like Jack Kemp, Speaker Ryan has made it his life-long mission to advance policies and ideas that expand opportunities and give all Americans, regardless of their income, race, religion, or zip code, the ability to realize their potential. Fighting poverty, rebuilding lives, and empowering communities are not easy problems to fix, but Speaker Ryan and the American Idea Foundation will continue to approach these challenges with the infectious optimism of Jack Kemp. Without a doubt, Jack Kemp’s legacy and example will serve as a lodestar for our efforts.