Wednesday, May 06, 2009

There Goes a Good Man

Just after Bill Clinton became President Clinton, I had the enormous good fortune to meet and work with Jack Kemp.  At that time, Kemp was by far the most popular Republican presidential candidate for the next election in 1996.  He was at the very top of his game.

Back then, he was in the private sector for the first time in many 

years and my job was to help him produce a monthly newsletter.  It was actually a very early experiment in social media.  He’d discuss a handful of topics and invite his readers to comment.  He’d then respond to the comments, some of which would lead to other topics in a serendipitous conversation thread. 

Critics and rivals said that Kemp was too unfocused to be chief executive but the reality was he might have been too curious to be president.  The newsletter was a bombardment of facts and anecdotes, historical quotes, and personal observations but the theme of this data dump couldn’t be more sharply focused.  He wanted to tell people why he thought that America in 1993 was the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity of all time.

Each month he’d bring me into his office and talk in a whirlwind about his most recent trip to China; “they’ve got cities so new they don’t even have names yet;” or a conversation about fiber to the home he had had with George Gilder, and he tell about a young guy who was just elected mayor of Jersey City on a radical opportunity platform.  He’d mention an obscure quote and then pull down an old book from an upper shelf and instantly find the right page and paragraph to confirm the wording. 

He wasn’t cool and detached like Obama.  He was passionate.  He burned with the curiosity of a completely self-taught man. He was learning new things every day and that just excited him to learn more.  I came away from these meetings with pages of notes, articles, people to contact, and new ideas to imagine. 

He easily could have been a rich man if he had paid attention to business opportunities instead of historical ones.  His father was an entrepreneur who built a delivery service consisting of himself and a motorcycle into a Southern Californian trucking business by investing his profits in more equipment and more people to operate it and so on.  It’s one thing to learn about business in school.  But it must be another thing entirely to watch your dad build one day after day after day and see the incremental improvements increase and build on each other. 

I don’t know whether that experience served as the inexhaustible fuel for his enthusiasm for entrepreneurship but it certainly gave him a sturdy frame of reference and made him rich in knowledge, and friends, and fans.

It was a shock to hear that he had died.  He always seemed like a young guy to me, energetic, enthusiastic, and always open to new ideas.  He was so alive it's hard to imagine him not alive.

He was - and still is - a good and decent man.

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