Penn Kemble: Converging Views of Conscience and Reason

We knew him–wish we had known him for years. Here are two tributes to him from publications that are at least … different. (This is not a moment for arguments.)

(From The New Republic)


Penn Kemble died of brain cancer on Sunday at age 64. He was a hero of American liberalism, even if many American liberals mistook him for something else. In 1972, after George McGovern led the Democratic Party to catastrophe, Kemble, a former activist in the Young People’s Socialist League, launched the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, which fought to repudiate the isolationism of McGovern’s followers. In the 1980s, he organized Democrats who wanted to oppose communism in Central America more forcefully, and, in the ’90s, he helped run the U.S. Information Agency. Kemble’s ideological trajectory paralleled that of many neoconservatives, but he never became one himself, remaining a social democrat to the end. Indeed, while he was already sick, he worked to prepare a conference paying tribute to the legacy of Sidney Hook. His ulterior motive, as all the participants understood, was to revive the social democratic spirit. As news of his illness spread, the event–which drew liberal academics, activists, and leaders–turned into a tribute to Kemble, one he richly deserved. He was a contributor to these pages during some of their most disputatious days, and he was a kind and smart and important man. We will miss him.

(From the Washington Times)

Role model for Democrats

By R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., October 21, 2005:

What Pat Moynihan once called the Party of Liberty lost one of its most energetic friends last Saturday when Penn Kemble breathed his last after a valiant battle with brain cancer. The Democratic Party, too, lost a friend in Penn.
What kind of man was he? In his college days in 1964, inspired by the causes of civil rights cause and social democracy, he got pictured on Page One of the New York Times, blocking Triborough Bridge traffic in protest of school conditions in Harlem. He and his East River Congress of Racial Equality compatriots were about to be hauled off to the calaboose. His mother, picking up her copy of the Times back home in Lancaster, Pa., was shocked.
She would not be shocked many more times by Penn. Ever the friend of racial equality, labor unions and all elements of democracy, he moved to more peaceful protests, not out of timorousness but commitment to reasoned debate. No one could question his courage, but he was eminently reasonable.
The last time I saw him on his feet was a few months back. He was competing at his favorite sport, handball. To my astonishment, however, he wore a helmet.
Was this one of his jokes? Penn had a puckish sense of humor, but this was not one of his jokes. After an unexpected grand mal seizure, doctors drilled into his skull and removed a tumor. That would not stop him from driving a handball 50 miles an hour on the court against those of us who wanted to beat him. Penn was a very tough guy.
His toughness was behind all the political activities that filled his life, along with his high intelligence. In 1972, he was a founder of the Social Democrats, U.S.A. He became a Scoop Jackson Democrat, campaigning for the pro-defense anticommunist senator’s doomed attempt to wrest the Democratic presidential nomination. Aware the McGovernites were shanghaiing the Democratic Party into a lala land of anti-Americanism and narcissistic utopia, he became executive director of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM).
Had the CDM taken control of the Democratic Party in the 1970s, it would have remained on the path hewn by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. It would have remained a vibrant center of American values and avoided much of the foolishness that has led to its decline.
CDM efforts proved futile and liberal Democrats such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Bennett drifted to the Republican Party. Penn remained a Democrat to the displeasure of his old friends, who were now called neoconservatives. Doubtless that hurt Penn, but he was committed to the Democratic Party and the trade union movement.
However, like his friend, the philosopher Sydney Hook, being a Democrat did not prevent him from vigorously fighting communism. He was with the Reagan administration heart and soul in advancing democracy in Central America. That offended many of his fellow Democrats, but Penn was his own man. He made neocons uneasy. He angered the Democratic elite. But he followed his conscience and continued to establish organizations opposing tyranny and intolerance worldwide. When the Clinton administration made him deputy director of the United States Information Agency it made a shrewd choice.
In all the years I knew Penn, he kept everything in perspective. In a city, Washington, and a pursuit, politics, where baseness is often the norm and too often the key to power and fame, Penn has been the soul of honor, intelligence and all the virtues of the timeless liberal. He achieved great things for human rights and the dignity of working people but never drew attention to himself or did anything cheap. There was a “tough guy” quality to his speech, which I always relished; for though he really was a tough guy he was always the perfect gent.
We never had a cross word in any disagreement. We had many ironic and amusing words. In sum, I rise to say Penn is one of the finest men I have known. He is one of the guys you would want with you in the foxhole during any battle. There he would get to the business at hand, accomplishing it with a few gruff laughs thrown in.
Once the shrieks and whines of their present leadership is abjured, sensible Democrats will realize Penn Kemble’s life is the blueprint for the Democratic Party’s return to relevance.

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