Jack Kemp arrived at a recent Monitor breakfast only a few hours after sitting down for a chat with President Clinton at the White House.
"Why in the world would Clinton be talking to you?" a reporter asked Mr. Kemp in a joshing tone that the former Buffalo Bills football star was used to hearing in the locker room. Kemp laughed and said: "I called Clinton's chief of staff and asked if I could present my views on the tax legislation the president is dealing with. So I had about 40 minutes with the president, along with [Treasury Secretary] Robert Rubin and [Chief of Staff] Erskine Bowles."
Kemp said he complimented the president for "keeping [Alan] Greenspan as head of the [Federal Reserve Board] and for his free-trade positions." But he said he argued that Mr. Clinton would be wrong if he vetoed the budget legislation because it contained a lowering of the capital-gains tax. He said he told the president that such tax relief would have a decided stimulus on the economy that would lift the lives of all Americans - the poor as well as the rich.
And how did the president respond to this presentation? Kemp said Clinton listened attentively and asked some questions. "It's up to the president - not me - to characterize his views," he added. But the former GOP congressman and, most recently, Bob Dole's vice presidential running mate, left the impression that the president was receptive to his views and is still giving consideration to letting a big capital-gains tax reduction become law.
What was particularly interesting to the assembled reporters was that Kemp, a recent opponent of Clinton's and a man who no longer holds a high elected office, could be welcomed in and listened to for such a long time by the president.
In addition, Kemp might well be the Republican presidential candidate who, in the year 2000, will try to end the Democrats' stay in the White House - perhaps vying against the president's favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vice President Al Gore.
Indeed, there would have been many good political reasons for Clinton to ignore Kemp's request. But he didn't. He likes Kemp and appreciates that he ran an honorable race last year. He also considers Kemp particularly knowledgeable on taxes, and a Republican who is sensitive to the needs of the poor as well as the wealthy. So he said "yes" when an automatic "no" might have been expected.
Kemp now seems headed for a run for the presidency that he failed to make in 1996. At this time four years ago, Kemp was regarded by political pundits as the "favorite" for the nomination. But after testing the waters for a while, the old football player known as a daring quarterback who wasn't afraid to take big risks, decided that the fight for the White House was not for him. He said he didn't like the immense fund-raising assignment that his candidacy would entail.
Now Kemp seems ready to make the sacrifices that the campaign trail demands. He says he's going to be focusing on helping Republicans be elected to Congress next year. "Then," he adds, "if I feel it's right, I'll run." No, he hasn't said "absolutely, positively." But he has set up an exploratory committee to assess the road ahead for a Kemp candidacy. He's on his way, it seems.
Here a question inevitably comes to mind: Can a man who has run in the No. 2 spot on a losing presidential ticket go on later to win the presidency?
Mr. Dole, who was a loser in 1976 as Jerry Ford's running mate, struck out again when he tried for the presidency. But a young fellow named Franklin Roosevelt was a loser as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1920 - and then came back in 1932 to make it to the White House.