Arguably, this month is one of the all-time low points for the Reagan administration.
First there was the loss of control in the U.S. Senate as the Republican party's 53-47 advantage turned to a 45-55 minority.Then came the embarrassing debacle over the sale of arms to Iran that put President Reagan's judgment into question both in the minds of friends and foes.
It was against this downbeat background that I went to Washington last week to attend a dinner and White House briefing sponsored by the very conservative and highly influential Heritage Foundation. Not surprisingly, spirits were less than ebullient.
But not Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., the darling of the Republican right, who was the dinner speaker Monday night.
Rep. Kemp, who still looks fit enough to be a professional football quarterback, actually gave his speech before dinner so he could attend the Monday night football game between the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers, for whom his son, Steve, is the back-up quarterback.
Bursting with energy and speaking only from notes, Rep. Kemp asserted the Senate losses had another perspective. First, he said, the Republicans won 49 percent of the total vote for all Senate seats combined, up 2 percent from the previous election. Second, he said, none of the Democratic winners campaigned against President Reagan, or against Star Wars or for less defense or for increased taxes. That in itself was a triumph for conservatism, he said. Thirdly, some of the Republican losers had not supported President Reagan as much as they might have.
Rep. Kemp painted a rosy picture of just how far the conservative movement and the Republican party have come in the past decade. He does not see any reversal to that trend, despite the Senate losses. The gain of eight Republican governorships to 24 is a better indication of Republican strength, he said.
Rep. Kemp's remarks were wide ranging. At one point he said if "Star Wars" was put to a national vote it would win hands down.
It seems clear that Rep. Kemp is running for the presidential nomination. Acting like a national candidate, he posed for individual photographs with mostly all of the several hundred Heritage crowd - just like President Reagan. One suspected that if there were any babies around he would have given each two kisses and a bear hug.
Conservative Republicans would have you believe the party's 1988 presidential nomination is still up in the air though some contend Vice President George Bush is far ahead of the pack.
Whatever the case, Jack Kemp is an attractive and exciting campaigner, articulate and bright. Several of the Heritage members said the leap from the House to the White House was probably too great and that Rep. Kemp should first run for the Senate in New York, a more traveled route to Pennsylvania Avenue.
The only criticism I heard of Rep. Kemp was a jest from Ambassador Charles Lichenstein, who was Jean Kirkpatrick's deputy at the United Nations in the early Reagan years.
"The trouble with Kemp as a speaker is that he wants to tell you everything he knows and he knows an awful lot," smiled Mr. Lichenstein during a post-breakfast talk the morning after Rep. Kemp's razzle-dazzle speech.
The nicest thing I heard about Rep. Kemp was from a retired businessman in his 70s who simply said: "That man certainly knows how to inspire people!"
One question is whether Rep. Kemp's charismatic in-person appeal can translate to television. His staccato, locker-room speaking style delivers words and thoughts at about twice the speed of Dan Rather. Obviously, television appeal is critical. But Rep. Kemp's skills on the stump, assuming he jumps into the early primaries, could vault him into serious contention.
Meanwhile, he does a good job pushing the conservative movement, even when the going is a little rough.