Tribute for Jack Kemp: Charles Colson
[To the Family] I think any man, if he had one thing he would wish for in life it was at the end of the course that he would have four children who would speak that lovingly and admiringly of him. Jack was a fortunate man. Bless you all.
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John Donne, the great poet, said when one man dies all of us are deprived and diminished. That’s true because every human being is created in the image of God, and therefore one person dying diminishes the rest of us. It’s especially so when someone of the character and strength and vision of Jack Kemp dies. We are all the poorer for it.
He was a singular figure. I’ve been in this town fifty years and I can never remember anybody dying twenty-two years after they were out of public office receiving the national, and indeed international, attention that he has received this week. It tells you what a singular figure he is, what a singular influence he has had on public policy and on the shape of this country.
He meant a lot to the church and it’s a loss that he’s gone because he was a wonderful witness of how a Christian man conducts himself in public office and the kind of witness that he creates when he does it.
It’s a loss to his family—to Joanne, his partner, those beautiful children and grandchildren you saw, seventeen grandchildren whose games and plays at school he never missed.
I will miss him. We were friends for forty years, almost forty years. I met Jack in 1971 when he was a freshly minted congressman just arriving in Washington and came to see me in my office in the White House. We hit it off immediately because he had such buoyancy, such excitement, such enthusiasm, such a positive view of life. And I thought, this man is going to do great things.
We followed one another over the years. As a matter of fact, after I came out of prison and started a ministry to prisoners, Jack took a keen interest in that because as you all so well know, he cared for the underdog, He cared for the hurting person. He cared for the marginalized and the people left out in society.
Since his wife, Joanne, was on our board for fifteen years, we used to travel a lot together. We traveled overseas a couple of times, spoke in various places. I saw Jack close in many intimate times that we had together. He was my friend. I loved him.
When a Saint Goes Home
It’s OK to grieve. We come to a service like this and many of us are saddened. All of us are, I suspect, because we’ve lost something precious to us. And that’s all right. C. S. Lewis wrote that was part of the healing process when someone dies. But we come also because we’re recognizing a saint, which is what a believer is called. And Jack was a believer.
When a saint goes home, he has found peace with God. As the Scripture tells us, “Therefore since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I’ve lived long enough to celebrate the end of several wars, one of which I served in. And the bells would toll, and they’d say, “Make the world safe for democracy”, “no more wars.” War is going on all over the world today. This country is engaged in two. There’s no peace apart from peace with God.
Jack and I and his whole family, every one of them, and the grandchildren, all believe the same thing. As the Scripture said, “the Word became flesh”—that is, God the Creator of the universe, came in the person of Jesus. He came to lead and to teach and to instruct. He came to die on a Cross a hideous death so that he would take the punishment in our place for our sins. He died in our place—a substitutionary atoning death on that Cross. But that’s never the end of the story—because he rose again and that resurrection power is what all of us live by. And therefore we can take an occasion like this and celebrate the victory that Christ won for those who follow Him.
Scripture tells us in the book of Hebrews there’s a great cloud of witnesses in Heaven—and fine theologians like Alistair Begg, who preceded me in prayer; probably have their own interpretation of that Scripture. I kind of like to think that the saints who have gone before us are looking down on us now and watching us. And if they are, I suspect Jack, who’s been in Heaven and received his reward for a few days—is probably getting used to the place —is looking down on this service, and is frustrated because he’s thinking to himself, “Why don’t they say this?” It’s the first conversation he’s ever heard that he couldn’t butt in on! [audience laughter]
Jack’s was a life well lived—all anybody can ask for. The good life is a life lived in service to others, your God, and doing what you’re called to do.
He started out in football. He was too small to play football at Occidental College, so he was told, but he wouldn’t believe that. He played, and played his heart out, made the team, became a star. Certainly too small to play for the pros, but he played. Cut five times by the Chargers, and he played nonetheless, and he played as a star quarterback for the Chargers and for the Buffalo Bills. We all remember those glory days for him. What most people don’t stop to focus on is that Jack Kemp had twelve concussions during the time he was playing, two broken ankles and a crushed hand, which happened to be his throwing hand, which he later joked, it was reset by the doctors making it easier to hold the football.
This was a man with courage. That takes real courage. I served in the Marine Corps under [General Lewis B.] “Chesty” Puller, who had five Navy crosses. I suspect if Jack had been called and been in the military that he would have won those Navy crosses, Congressional medals. . . The man was indomitable. Few among us [are] like that.
He was the co-founder—and president—of the AFL Players’ Association. That’s why I think all of his life he had such a passion for the working man and woman. He was the darling of blue-collar Americans because they knew he understood them. And coming out of those locker rooms, he understood that the African American players and the white players were one, which is why he had such a passion for civil rights.
He was elected in 1970. Those of you who remember back that far will know that wasn’t a particularly good year for the Republican Party, but Jack was elected in a blue-collar district just outside of Buffalo in upstate New York.
He immediately made his mark in the Congress. He even was considered as a candidate for president in 1980 but, of course, that was Reagan’s year. In the Reagan Administration, however Jack perhaps provided the most significant intellectual underpinnings of what we call the Reagan Revolution. He was the low-tax, pro-growth, positive view of America—America’s best days are ahead—and provided that battleground in the Congress and that public debate that we now look back on and call the Reagan Revolution.
Now why would he have done that—a pro-football player?
Well, the stereotype of somebody coming out of pro-football is that they played too long without their helmet and got hit on the head too long. Maybe he’s an attractive jock, but that’s about all you would say. Most people don’t know that when he was playing football in the pros, he was reading Friedrich Hayak for pleasure.
He had one of the best minds I’ve ever encountered, a probing, intellectual curiosity. He wanted to know the answer to this, and the answer to that. Why was this, and why was that. Excellent mind. He was always underestimated.
He ran for president in 1988. That turned out—in the way Republicans do things in an orderly manner—to be the year that Reagan’s vice president won the nomination, so Jack did not. He became Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, which is where he really showed his concerns for the poor. Where he saw the failure of a liberalist idea of dependency created for the poor. He wanted to empower them! He used to call me once in a while and we’d talk on the telephone, and he’d say, “I’m going to empower people to work themselves out of the ghettos. That’s what America is about.” The American opportunity, the American dream. Jack Kemp embodied that in every respect.
He used to talk to me a lot about the criminal justice system. “What can we do, Chuck?” I know when he was in Congress, he would call me up and say, “Chuck, show me what we can do to straighten out these prisons. What can we do to help these people who are incarcerated? What can we do to bring an end to the injustices that these people experience?”
In 1996, as you know, he ran with Bob Dole for president of the United States. He ran an upbeat campaign. He got that Kemp message out across the country, exciting people with everything he did and said. And after his defeat—after the Dole-Kemp ticket was defeated—he kept his public voice. [He] continued to fight for the things he believed in.—not one bit diminished. There was never a defeat in Jack Kemp’s life that he didn’t turn into an opportunity to do more for what he passionately believed in.
Kemp the Man
Let me tell you in the few minutes I have just a little bit about Kemp the man as I got to know him as a brother in the faith, as a really, strong, strong ally in what I did. You know, we used to travel places and Jack would often say, “Chuck, you’ve encouraged me spiritually” (we’d have spiritual discussions) but I never encouraged him anywhere near as much as he encouraged me. I never spoke anywhere that Jack Kemp wasn’t the first person—just like Jeff was saying, whether you threw the ball or not, his dad would give him encouragement. Sometimes I wouldn’t feel I’d done a particularly good job, and Jack would run up to me and say, “Chuck, that was just wonderful!” [He was a] great encourager, and he almost made it so by the force of his will and his personality.
He had a great life of the mind. We used to trade off books that we would read and I’d try to keep up with Jack, and I couldn’t. He’d give me a book and say, “Have you read this one?” and I’d say “no,” and I’d start to read it and, within two weeks, he had another book that he wanted me to read. This would go back and forth. We’d discuss the books we were reading. His mind was constantly probing. I remember one day at Bill Simon’s funeral at St. Patrick’s in New York. Jack and I happened to be sitting together and he’s passing notes to me about the latest books he’s read. And then ,when we left there, we started in one of those deep, deep discussions that you could get in with Jack that were really almost endless and his mind just constantly, constantly, learning.
We were in Cambridge, England together, as a matter of fact. Both Jack and I gave—Here I am, the ex-Watergate felon and defeated candidate for vice president of the United States. We put on a seminar for the students at Cambridge on government and politics [laughter]. If you’ve ever spoken to an audience in Cambridge or Oxford, you’ll know that there’s just a bit of a pompous touch [audience laughter]—and they looked condescendingly down upon us outlanders from across the pond. Within fifteen minutes, Jack Kemp had them eating out of his hand. They were dazzled because of that quick mind, that good mind, and that winsome way! How could you not believe what Jack Kemp said was true! He couldn’t imagine you couldn’t believe, how could you not believe it? [laughter]
He was a man who lived for the power of ideas, as Mike Gerson wrote so eloquently in that tribute in the Washington Post this week, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read. He was a strategic thinker with a big vision.
But, you know, you can be a great thinker and be a great intellect. You can be a powerful person. You can hold high office. In the final analysis, it comes down to “what is a man or woman’s character?” I think one way—I see our mutual friend Bill Bennett here, who I think will agree with this—you line up the four classic Greek virtues. One day when we visited Athens, Patty and I and Joanne and Jack went to the Olympic Stadium where the first Olympics were held. A new stadium on the site where the first Olympics where held—and Jack got out of the van and he went jogging right out into the field immediately, got down on his haunches in the imaginary crouch of a quarterback behind an imaginary center, took the ball and then arched back in that familiar pose you’ve all seen Jack in, as if he were ready to throw. I thought to myself, “This is a classical man. He belongs here. He fits here.”
Look at the four virtues.
Prudence. Here was a man who understood what Russell Kirk meant about the great Conservative virtue of prudence—the right fit for the right situation. The wisdom of the past as opposed to the Utopian ideas for the future, coming up with the right solutions that people would live orderly lives.
Temperance. Not once was Jack Kemp in all those years of public service ever compromised in his public behavior. He knew exactly what that word meant in the Greek sense. The only thing he might have been intemperate about was injustice, but I think the Greeks will allow that.
Third, Justice. I never met a human being with more passion for justice than Jack Kemp, more impatience with injustice. It burned within him; it was part of his DNA. It was the way he was made. All the times I spent talking to him, he was burning with injustice.
But the greatest virtue—Bill Bennett will tell you, C. S. Lewis said—is courage. Because you can have all the other virtues, but if you don’t have courage, you won’t live them out. Here was a man who had courage—courage on the football field, courage of his convictions in politics. He bucked his own party on immigration, not because he wanted to open the borders but because he wanted compassion to the strangers and aliens in our midst, exactly as the Bible says. He wanted to help hurting people. It hurt him badly with his own party.
He fought for civil rights when some of us in the White House were engineering what became known as the Southern Strategy because he cared about the decency of every single human being. That took great courage. As a matter of fact, I’ve often wondered—often wanted to see Jack Kemp in the Oval Office—but I often wondered: why not? I think the “why not” is that he couldn’t do two things which are essential for high public office today—for the Oval Office. Number one, he was without guile. In all of the many, many times we were together over the years, I never heard him say an unkind or uncharitable thing about another human being. Never saw him attack anyone publicly. I don’t think he could run an attack ad. I don’t think he was capable of it. How do you get to the White House without running attack ads?
I don’t think he could have compromised his convictions. If he believed something was right and just and was what God was leading him to, Jack Kemp could not hide that. He would say it; he would speak out. That quality of courage, that great virtue of courage, may be (and this is a sad commentary, and I hope not overly cynical commentary, on our times) may be what kept him out of the White House.
His Finest Hour
The greatest courage he showed was in his final battle against cancer. The times I visited him while he was sick, I was sad, although I tried not to show it, because here the great warrior was felled. He could only sit in that chair—he would move the positions, and he could get up, but it was with great difficulty.
I realized the biggest problem for Jack. He wasn’t afraid to die; he was a Christian—knows where he’s going. He was not afraid of pain; he’d gone through more pain in his lifetime than ten other people combined. What was tough for Jack was that he was out of the game. He couldn’t do anything about it. That man who bubbled over with enthusiasm and righteous concern for justice couldn’t move in that chair—was virtually unable to—as cancer slowly destroyed his body. Not his spirit, but his body. But, still, when I would lean over—he had trouble talking—I’d lean over and we’d whisper to one another and we’d talk to one another—and he would whisper encouraging words to me.
Death is inevitable for every human being. The question is how you face it. Jack faced it with enormous courage. That’s why John Donne, the poet, wrote, “Ask not for whom the bells tolls; they toll for you.” The prayer I would have, as I leave today, is that we would all have the courage not only to live life fully but to be able to live it at the end as nobly as Jack did.
What’s his legacy? His legacy is well established by all the adulation you’ve seen in the press this week, by your presence here today, by the incredible outpouring of respect and love and affection that shows for Jack Kemp that you are here. His ideas will live on because he had the right ideas. He fought for them courageously and persuasively. But in the end his greatest legacy, in my opinion, will be the people you’ve already heard from today before me. It will be that family. [looking at the Kemp Family]
I remember one night when Jack and Joanne invited Patty and me over—I think they’d just gotten the house redecorated. Jack was a man, when I speak about temperance, who lived modestly. Wherever he made money, it didn’t matter. That’s not what motivated him; ideas motivated him—but they’d just gotten the house redone and so we were invited over to dinner one night and we got into this conversation. Most of the kids were there. Some of them reminded me of this today. They were much younger then, it was back in the eighties, I guess. We sat down to the table and I started to enjoy my meal, but I didn’t enjoy it for very long because Jack was peppering me with questions. [snaps fingers] This! This! Coming on all sides. When Patty and I left there that night, I was limp. All I’d done was try to defend my positions. As I walked out, I said, “Jack, why did you do that? You and I agree on all those things.” “Oh,” he said, “this was wonderful for the kids! [much laughter] Think of what they learned from this kind of dialogue.”
[Speaking to the Kemp Family] You guys, all of you have great reason to be of your dad. And you love him, I know, as much as he loved each one of you. Carry on for him. That’s the legacy.
You know. C. S. Lewis said something wonderful about occasions like this. He said, “Christians—Christians—never have to say goodbye. We simply say au revoir. And so, Jack—until we meet again. Amen.
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