Once There Were Lions A Tribute to Jack Kemp By Michael R. Caputo

Following are the prepared remarks the publisher of PoliticsNY.net delivered at the Erie County Conservative Party "Salute to Jack Kemp" on March 29, 2014.


I miss Jack Kemp.

I was a writer for Jack, and he was my boyhood hero as the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. He wasn’t easy to work for because he demanded excellence. He liked to call it “fighting the battle of ideas,” and I was so proud to be a part of his team. 

With Jeff Bell and Larry Kudlow here tonight, I know Jack’s economic vision will be covered well. So I thought I would talk for just a few minutes about Jack’s foreign policy.

That’s where this photograph comes into play.

At a time when the Cold War was unwinding, Jack Kemp was a fervent advocate of the Reagan Doctrine: the President’s strategy to oppose the global influence of the Soviet Union. It became our national policy until the fall of the Soviet Union.

In particular, Jack was an unapologetic supporter of the freedom fighters in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. As a US Army infantry veteran, I was sold on it, too. Jack encouraged me to get deeply involved, and I did. It’s really the thing we talked about together most of all, staffer to boss. It was a big part of what he called “The Cause,” a phrase Kemp veterans know well.

He was so devoted to freedom that he wove a trip to Central America into his presidential campaign. I remember Roger Stone saying: “there are no voters in El Salvador, Jack.” But Jack saw it differently. He invited 25 leaders of the 1980s conservative movement to join him on a trip to Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Since I had spent some time there working on Reagan Doctrine projects, I was assigned to travel there in advance to organize the trip.

That’s pretty heady stuff for a kid from East Aurora.

Jack’s mission: to convince the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua to oppose a peace plan that would install communists in government. American conservatives opposed the plan and were happy to join Jack’s “cause.”

Let me read you something from the New York Times:

Early Tuesday, the group flew to Honduras, where Mr. Kemp spent the morning at a contra camp in an undisclosed location. He said the rebels told him they were confident they could defeat the Sandinistas, given sufficient supplies, weapons and ammunition.

But at a camp for Nicaraguan refugees in Honduras, even many ardent contra supporters said they did not think the rebels could win without the intervention of American troops.

After Mr. Kemp met with President Azcona in the afternoon, the group flew to El Salvador, the only country where they saw any signs of conflict or instability.

Guards armed with submachine guns accompanied the group on the bus ride from the airport and police detectives were stationed on every floor of the hotel where Mr. Kemp and his delegation stayed. Also, a memorandum from the American Embassy noted that ''gunshots in and around San Salvador are a regular occurrence.''

It’s that bus ride from the airport I want to tell you about tonight.

On the plane from Honduras to El Salvador, I briefed Jack on the situation on the ground. The FMLN rebels were gaining on the democratic government, and many feared they might overthrow President Jose Napolean Duarte.

In late summer of 1987, the rebels controlled territory nearby San Salvador, and had declared a transportation strike – a paro, they called it. Anyone caught in a motorized conveyance would be shot, and they were serious.

In fact, the rebels were known to operate near the road from the airport to the capital, a road our delegation had to travel. The FMLN eventually agreed to lift the stoppage in time for our delegation, but I wasn’t so certain. Neither were our Salvadoran hosts. The publisher of El Diario del Hoy, Enrique Altimirano, wouldn’t even hear of Kemp traveling the distance unsecured.

“The last thing our country needs is for an American presidential candidate to be assassinated here,” Enrique said. And he wasn’t kidding: The newspaper provided heavily armed bodyguards and a bulletproof van for Jack to travel in from the airport to the city. I just had to sell it to my candidate.

Jack’s reaction was predictable: “Forget it,” he said. There was no way he would ride in the safety of a bulletproof vehicle while the conservative leaders followed us in an unprotected bus. I pushed him hard on it. Too hard.

Jack could raise his voice at times, and he did it that day. “Mike,” he said, “if you don’t stop pushing me on this you’ll have to get to the back of the plane!”

The plane was suddenly quiet. Every important conservative leader from Washington had their eyes on me. At just 25 years old, it was a withering moment for me.

When we landed, I was the last to deplane. (I was in the back, after all.) Jack had boarded the bus with the rest of the delegation. Not wanting to let the bulletproof van go to waste, I rode in it instead of Jack.

I later realized the bodyguards carrying AK-47’s didn’t know I wasn’t Kemp, so they were on the alert. One sat on either side of me, staring out the windows, searched the passing countryside for rebels.

They weren’t playing. About halfway to the capital city, we approached an inactive tollbooth. You don’t have to be Sonny Carleone to know that’s a dangerous spot for a motorcade. After we pulled through the chokepoint, the van slowed and both men turned to watch as the bus nearly stopped to pass safely through the narrow tollbooth lanes.

When it cleared, our vehicle sped up. One guard dug into his pocket to produce several banknotes and handed them to his colleague. He hissed and the other laughed softly. They didn’t know I understood Spanish, but their brief exchange was chilling: they were settling a bet.

“I thought for sure they’d be attacked at the booths,” the loser said as he put his wallet back in his pocket.

Picture that: dozens of Washington’s most influential leaders in a wide-open bus, traveling through rebel threatened territory. Me, just a kid from East Aurora, in a bulletproof van protected by two armed guards who weren’t sure we’d make it.

But none of that mattered. That’s the way Jack was: he was a team player, and the quarterback rides with the team. No matter what.

The photo projected behind me was from that trip. Here, Jack was presenting an American Flag that had flown above the US Capitol to Col. Enrique Bermudez, commander of the Nicaraguan Contras. We were standing in a makeshift airfield near a secret rebel base on the Honduran border with Nicaragua.

I took that photograph. I remember thinking this was a meeting of real lions, great leaders who would change the world. Lions.

Jack also gave Bermudez a copy of “An American Idea,” Jack’s book many of you know.

Later, I worked with Col. Bermudez. The commander told me that he deeply admired Jack Kemp and he and his officer cadre had studied the book, page by page, in dozens of evening sessions in his tent at the secret jungle base. He told me many of his officers regarded Jack Kemp as their inspiration, and his ideas as their aspiration.

He also told me that Jack had inspired him to run for office in peacetime Nicaragua to try to put his ideas into action – if peace ever came. At the time, I was amazed that revolutionaries thousands of miles away admired Jack and found strength in his ideas. In his “Battle of Ideas.”

On February 16, 1991, Enrique Bermudez was assassinated outside a Managua hotel, leaving a meeting where he had discussed his presidential aspirations. Jack Kemp passed away May 2, 2009 of cancer. Both great men died far too young. But I'm still here. You are, too. So tell me: where are our lions?

With Russia rising, and America on the wane, I can’t stop thinking: I miss Jack Kemp.

Thank you very much.

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