The Quarterback

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POLITICS OCTOBER 14, 1996

The Quarterback

Then Jackie Kemp came on and we seemed to collapse, offensively and defensively. The final score was 50-20. It was the most humiliating moment of my life. I had never lost a game by that kind of score, even in high school.

--O.J. Simpson, The Education of a Rich Rookie (1970)

 

 

September 23 & 24:

I am in Jack Kemp's press pool today mainly because no one else wants to be; no one else wants to be because tagging along with the running mate of a presidential candidate who trails by sixteen points with forty-three days to go is not journalism but a death watch. When I ask one of the five other print journalists on the Kemp plane what my pool responsibilities are, he says, "Normally you'd have to come back and tell everyone else what happened, but since no one gives a f* what happened you don't have to do anything." So for no particular reason I stand watch in the lobby of an old hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, waiting for Jack Kemp to emerge from his fund-raiser. It's closed to the press, as the fund-raisers usually are, to help the donors to believe that they are being told secrets.

Yet, despite the general indifference to Kemp, he is actually the major candidate most worth listening to, mainly because he takes lots of little risks and occasionally says something he isn't supposed to, as when he reminds one crowd of his endorsement of Steve Forbes. Although he is cast as the man of ideas he is essentially a creature of high emotion. The enthusiasm that leads Kemp's tongue to run away with his brain is so infectious that it seems churlish to stop and ask what he means when he talks about the need for prosperity in "Second, Third and Fourth World countries," or when he says that "we are living in the most exciting country, the most exciting millennium, in the history of mankind," or when he promises "we're going to cut your taxes and balance the budget."

At length Kemp leaves the fund-raiser and joins his motorcade. We're meant to head straight to some factory, but instead at Kemp's insistence we stop at the Gerald Ford Museum, which doubles as a repository of White House memorabilia. It is so chock-a-block with curios that it could be used to illustrate any point about presidential politics a candidate might care to make. Soon enough Kemp is standing without interest between Dolley Madison's ice cream dispenser and William Henry Harrison's cradle. "Where's Lincoln?" he asks the curator. The curator points to a portrait on the wall. Kemp quotes from memory: "`If I had another face do you think I'd wear this one?' That's what Lincoln said. He had a great, great, great sense of humor."

Then Kemp's eyes pick out a display devoted to the Grant administration. "U.S. Grant," he says. "He did a lot of good things. He also lowered taxes." The curator nods, uncertainly. "Where's Kennedy?" asks Kemp. "Did he raise taxes or lower taxes?" Then he laughs and answers his own question. "He cut the capital gains rate from 49 to 28 percent." "And what happened to the revenues?" asks Joanne Kemp, by his side. "Revenues went up!" bellows Kemp. And then we're headed for the exit, with a brief stop at a display case celebrating Gerald Ford's high-school football career.

"Football," says Kemp, "is the training ground for...." He can't find the word he's looking for.

"Life?" suggests the curator.

"Life," says Kemp. "Absolutely. Well said."

It turns out that football and taxes are the only two certainties of life on the Kemp plane. In two days Kemp speaks at a hospital in Ohio, a lumber yard in Kentucky, a chair manufacturer in Michigan and a police officers' association in New York. At each appearance, someone in the crowd presents him with a football to sign; invariably Kemp takes it and motions for the person to go deep. He then completes the pass as the crowd cheers. Often his first action upon taking the stage is to motion twice with his throwing arm as if he is hurling a bomb. He waves to the crowd by holding both hands out flat and wiggling his fingers in a fashion that is recognizably masculine only because quarterbacks do it in the middle of the game to get the coach's attention. He works the rope line not by shaking hands but by grabbing at them, the way players clasp onto each other in a huddle.

The speeches themselves rely even more heavily on the football metaphor--to the point where it is hard to see where the football stops and the politics start. He introduces his wife as "the only woman in history to be wife and mother to three pro quarterbacks," except when he introduces her as "the real quarterback of the Kemp family." (Only male politicians who clearly have control of their wives can get away with the pretense that their wives are actually in charge.) To a standing-room only crowd at the chair manufacturing company Kemp gives his most ambitious speech. Twenty minutes of hot rhetoric builds up to this:

I close with this thought. Let's see, how many years ago? 1957. Wow. Almost forty years ago. I started my professional career with the Detroit Lions as their third-string quarterback. And they said I would never make it. I came from the wrong schools. I was too short. I threw too hard. I was too optimistic. I didn't have it. I tell you what. I never gave up. I got traded, sold, hurt, cut, booed, knocked out, but I never gave up. Bob Dole in his career never gave up.... Bob Dole and Jack Kemp are fighters. We believe in the American Dream.

Kemp claims a special affinity to blacks from his experience of playing ball with them. He implies a special understanding of business from his experience of being a team leader. His ability to pull this off has nothing to do with his actual experience of blacks and business (he was the whitest guy on the Bills, for instance, and he blew his football money on bad investments). It depends on the desire of blacks to believe in the myth of the white guy who plays sports, and is therefore "in touch," and of businessmen to believe that Kemp's football experience counts as business experience. I'm not sure about the black experience, but never in history have businesspeople been so prone to making this little leap of faith in football, as you can see wherever Kemp goes. At its moment of supremacy, commerce seems to be more in need than ever before of exciting metaphors to keep everyone interested in it. Could a similar phenomenon be at work in the Kemp campaign--his politics are so inert that people would much rather hear him talk football?

The starting point for almost all of Kemp's political beliefs is a single fixed idea, that lower tax rates will unleash so much economic growth that the government will end up with more tax revenues. Like most of the supply-siders Kemp is deeply sincere; his fierce loyalty to the supply-side doctrine in the face of all the evidence from the Reagan years is a mystery better solved by psychiatry than by economics. In Steve Forbes the impulse toward the supply-side religion seems to be repression--a desire to avoid grappling with objective reality. In Jack Kemp the impulse seems to be expression--a need to get all fired up about an inherently rational subject. Whatever else it is, supply-side economics is relentlessly upbeat: all of our problems have a simple solution, and in solving them everyone gets more, forever. It is as if Kemp chose his economic theory not by its plausibility but by his ability to sell it in a language he speaks. ("Did you ever see anybody so enthusiastic about capitalism?" he shouts to the crowds.) In Kemp's hands economics ceases to be the dismal science concerned with allocating scarce means to alternative ends and becomes ... football!

In New York I am led with other journalists to the thirty-eighth floor of the downtown Marriott. There we stand rigidly outside the door, like patients waiting for their booster shots, until one by one Kemp's press aide comes to fetch us. Interviews with national candidates are not usually designed to convey information or understanding but to strip the journalist of his complaint that the candidate is hiding, which he always is. I have been offered five minutes with Kemp--as I was offered five minutes with Gore. I am pondering the absurdity of trying to glean anything from anyone in five minutes when the journalist before me tells me that he only has two and a half--150 seconds!

Once my five minutes begin, I introduce myself. "You're the famous one from The New Republic," Kemp says. But before I have a chance to fully absorb that notion, he adds, "The one who wrote that Kemp never had a new idea in his life. Well, you're right, I never had a new idea in my life."

"That's Michael Kinsley," I say. "I've never written about you."

"Oh," he says, "A tabula rasa." Just then Joanne Kemp comes in. "Joanne," he says, "this is Michael Kelly of The New Republic."

"Michael Lewis."

"Right, Michael Lewis," he says, just as enthusiastically as if I had been Michael Kelly or even Michael Kinsley.

In his eyes I can see the lights of the stadium clock. Four and a half minutes. "What exactly," I ask. "Is a Fourth World country?"

"A Third World country," says Kemp, "is a country that is trying to develop. A Fourth World country is a country that is so poor that it doesn't even have a chance to develop thanks to stupid IMF policies and ... "

The clock is winding down; I have to cut him off before he eats up more of it with a disquisition on the international financial order. I ask how he became interested in economic ideas. He majored in Physical Education at Occidental College; it's a long way from there to econometrics. Kemp explains that he had "an epiphany" after he heard JFK speak on behalf of lower taxes.

Time for one more play: a Hail Mary. "If the Reagan years didn't do it, what evidence would dissuade you from your belief that lower tax rates will lead to more tax revenues?" I ask. Kemp explains that the Reagan years proved his theory and that he and Dole are now engaged in finding the precise point where the Laffer curve bends backwards. (He is anxious that I not say he wants bigger tax cuts than Bob Dole, which until now hasn't occurred to me.) He uses not only the same logic but the same words he used in 1980. Nothing new has gotten inside his head. Kemp is the classic B student, but with a twist: he's also the star quarterback. After the grades are passed out he can visit the headmaster to argue his case. If he is charming enough, and a good enough quarterback, he'll probably persuade the headmaster to fire the teacher.

Afterwards I went back and dug out O.J. Simpson's memoir of his first year with the Buffalo Bills, which was also Kemp's last. The beef about Kemp as a quarterback was his inability to adapt to new situations; the problem came to a head with the Bills. As O.J. wrote:

When you have veterans on the line and a rookie in the backfield all saying that we should run and the quarterback still keeps throwing passes, it doesn't exactly qualify him as a strong leader. Jack was a heck of a nice guy and a pleasure to talk to--but I was beginning to wonder whether he really heard what you said to him. Telling him I had been open on pass patterns had been like talking to a door.... Even Dan Durragh, the rookie quarterback who had been in street clothes on the sidelines, had commented on how Jack often had his mind made up before he went back to pass.

By Michael Lewis

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posted in: politics, grand rapids, lincoln, new york, bob dole, gerald ford, j. simpson, jack kemp, jackie kemp, joanne kemp, michael kinsley, michael lewis, o.j. simpson, steve forbes, william henry harrison, buffalo bills, detroit lions, white house, kentucky, michigan, ohio

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