Remembering a good friend, Jack Kemp

I want to take time out from debating the government taking over banks and automobile companies, and borrowing like there's no tomorrow, to honor one of my favorite Americans.

On May 2, cancer took Jack Kemp, a dear friend of mine.

In April 1990, as a newly declared candidate for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (the state's utility board), I met Jack Kemp at the Republican Party state convention in Tulsa, and established a friendship that I was delighted to enjoy for years to come.

Jack was Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary at the time, and he was on a mission to establish housing opportunities for the poor. Jack and I thought it made sense to encourage home ownership for public housing tenants, because it gave them a stake in the system.

When people have a stake in the system -- when they have an asset to protect -- they fight for their neighborhoods. They run the drug dealers out. They keep an eye out for crooks and thugs. They want to protect their asset because it's theirs. They have equity.

Jack was fond of saying, "No one washes a rental car before they return it." Why? Because they don't own it.

In the Republican hierarchy, Jack was a real champion for the left behind, the left out, the little fellow.

When I heard Jack speak in 1990 at that GOP convention, I was trying to establish that we as a nation could do better in our fight against poverty. I didn't think the solution was just to spend more money. At the convention, Jack spoke of enterprise zones in poor communities, home ownership for poor people, and how tax relief and capital gains tax relief created investment capital for minority business and small business. After his presentation, I found myself, saying, "Me, too. I can relate to this guy." He struck a nerve with me, and I became a Jack Kemp disciple from that day forward.

Jack was passionate about supply-side economics, and his involvement in politics was really about making the world better for all people, and changing the world for the better. His passion was infectious.

If you spent 30 minutes with him, it didn't matter if you were liberal or conservative, red, yellow, brown, black or white, rich or poor. You were impacted. He was one of the best -- if not the best spokesman -- for supply-side economics and helping the poor in America and around the world.

He believed as I do, that we should take free enterprise, capitalism, home ownership and opportunity into every pocket of poverty in America and the world.

After all, if we can't make capitalism and free enterprise work at home in America, how can we export it around the world? This was Jack's sincere belief.

Jack knew better than anyone I ever met in the Republican or Democrat parties that the strength of America was not in the automobile industry, in agriculture, in the energy industry, nor in the banking industry. Jack Kemp knew that the strength of America was in her people. Their hopes, their dreams, their ideas, their ambitions, and most important, their goodness.

Jack appealed to people's intelligence, not their fears, as so many politicians do today.

I can't imagine Jack ever meeting a stranger. As a conservative Republican, Jack weaved in and out of Republican, Democrat, black, white, red, yellow and brown circles and never abandoned his principles.

He was deeply in love with his wife, JoAnne, he loved talking about his kids and grandkids, and he loved the family vacations where all the kids and grandkids gathered.

Perhaps World Magazine eulogized him best when it said "Jack approached people as if everyone in politics cared as much about ideas and possessed as much good will as he did. He was wrong about that, but he and we are better for it."

I totally agree.

The passion and kindness of Jack Kemp will be missed in the Republican Party and in our country. He carried that "never say quit" attitude as the all-pro quarterback that he once was to his death. Being the old quarterback that I was, I used to tease Jack that he was the second best quarterback in the Republican Party.

But believe me, Jack Kemp took a back seat to no one.

J.C. Watts ( is chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group. He is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. His column appears every other week in the Review-Journal.