Kemp had to know effort could pay off 8 years later

August 22, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

So now we know why Jack Kemp came to the Latrobe Homes housing project, in the city of Baltimore, and commenced one day to throw money around. He is a man of vision. He has such vision that, never mind his ability to spot a secondary receiver in a swarm of defenders 20 yards upfield, this is a guy who could stand here eight years ago and spot a weakness in a presidential campaign in the year 1996.

Nothing better explains the thing that happened last week in San Diego, when Kemp, the former U.S. housing secretary whose department's money rebuilt the ruined Latrobe Homes, who made a reputation urging the salvation of inner cities when his party was kissing them off, who opposed Republican efforts to end affirmative action, who repudiated race-based politics, and who declared his party's immigrant-bashing repugnant, suddenly performed the greatest naked reverse since his days playing quarterback.

He took back the things for which everybody thought he stood. He caved in on affirmative action, and on aid to children of illegal immigrants, and he agreed to run for a party that kept talking about a "big tent" and "inclusion" while ostentatiously removing the simple word "tolerance" from its platform.

He must have seen it coming. Eight years ago, Kemp stood in a courtyard at Latrobe Homes and saw what years of Washington neglect had wrought. There was filth and decay wherever he looked, and the people who lived in it had ceased looking for any hope in their own lives.

And he turned and saw what had been the magnificent Church of St. James and St. John right there on Aisquith Street. It was now behind a protective barrier of barbed wire atop a high metal fence, and its ancient stained-glass windows were shattered, and Jack Kemp stood there and declared in public that all of this had to stop.

Was this the same guy who now runs with Dole? Of course. He must have glanced downfield and spotted the future. All that miserable traipsing through ruined neighborhoods ignored during the Reagan and Bush years, all those times he called himself a "civil rights Republican" while his party pursued its race-based Southern strategy, maybe he knew the inevitable had to happen: Eventually, they'd need a guy like Kemp as a sign of moderation.

At their convention last week, the Republicans managed to air-brush a lot of their warts. They froze the scariest of their right-wing element out of prime TV time, and they managed to trot out Colin Powell and hope nobody noticed when he got booed over affirmative action and abortion.

But it was still a convention whose 1,990 delegates included just 52 blacks. ("Ninety percent of the Republican delegates identify themselves as 'white'," said the comic Bill Maher. "And the other 10 percent as 'very white.' ")

Maybe Jack Kemp saw it coming all along. There has to be a little balance. Bob Dole, just weeks after stiffing the NAACP, just days after caving in to the Republican right wing on every hot-button issue in exchange for convention peace, reached for Kemp, a man with whom he has a history of antagonism.

Kemp gives his party the look of sanity. He's supposed to make everybody forget how scary Pat Buchanan sounded four years ago, and how intransigent Ralph Reed sounds today, and how Bob Dole once opposed Head Start and consistently voted against minimum-wage increases.

But, in the process, he has to make himself forget the things that distinguished him in a Republican Party that turned its back on American cities, and on black people, and on the poor, who have become such an annoyance to everyone that today, in Washington, even that mushy-hearted liberal Bill Clinton signs a welfare reform bill that reads like a war on children.

Eight years ago, Jack Kemp came to Latrobe Homes and gave the face of humanity to his party. Against all other Republican signals, he said Washington still cared about crumbling inner cities. He put government money into a place where poor black fTC people lived and said it would turn their lives around.

Did it? Latrobe Homes will never be confused with Dulaney Valley. Its residents are still poor, still overwhelmingly dependent on government help. There are patches of messiness in the streets, wads of paper here, a battered mattress next to a trash bin there.

But there are residents who have planted lush flower gardens. The other evening, a father flipped a Frisbee with a couple of children, while other kids rode around in little red wagons. Neighbors sat on lawn chairs and chatted amiably. Women hung fresh wash from clothes lines. It wasn't plush, but it was worlds better than it had been.

Oh, and the old Church of St. James and St. John: The protective fence is down, and the barbed wire's gone. It's now called the Urban Bible Fellowship Church, and Tuesday evening, if you walked into the place, there were about 70 people there, mostly children, at a Bible class. The sound of music filled the church, and the melody drifted all the way to the courtyard across the street where youngsters played.

Jack Kemp would have enjoyed the scene. Sometimes government money actually helps people live better lives. It's what he's long maintained, even when much of his party declared otherwise. When the old quarterback joined the Republican ticket, he knew how it works: To win the big game, sometimes you have to dirty your hands.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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