Jack Kemp, an original pillar in Republican ‘big tent,’ dies at 73

Jack Kemp, a former Republican vice presidential nominee and professional football star who cut a path as a conservative purist and a fervent advocate of tax cuts, died Saturday. He was 73.

The longtime professional quarterback, who went on to become a New York congressman, presidential candidate, Cabinet secretary and vice presidential candidate, died at his home in Bethesda, Md.

Kemp was diagnosed with cancer in January, and his swift decline stunned friends and associates. A statement released by his family late Saturday said he died peacefully shortly after 6 p.m. “surrounded by the love of his family and pastor.”

“He was a bleeding-heart conservative,” said Edwin J. Feulner, a former campaign advisor and president of the Heritage Foundation who confirmed news of Kemp’s death. “He was a good friend and a real hero to a lot of us.”

Kemp first gained national prominence with the San Diego Chargers in the early 1960s and then went on to lead the Buffalo Bills to the American Football League championship in 1964 and 1965.

He used his popularity on the football field to win election from a Buffalo-area district to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1971 to 1989.

As a congressman, Kemp was one of the few members of the House -- along with Democratic Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill -- to have national name recognition. With his Kennedyesque hairstyle, boyish good looks, unbounded enthusiasm and raspy voice, Kemp seemed a natural to bring new energy and interest to the Republican Party when he ran with Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas in 1996.

The congressman was the leading architect of the Kemp-Roth tax bill, first proposed in 1978 with Sen. William Roth of Delaware, that proposed a 30% cut in federal taxes over three years. Kemp’s 1979 book, “American Renaissance: A Strategy for the 1980s,” contained what became known as Reaganomics during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and helped redefine the GOP’s economic identity.

“Jack more than any other person made Reagan aware of the potential appeal of supply-side economics, but Reagan probably would have come to that conclusion on his own because that’s where the Republicans were headed,” said Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon.

Kemp, as much as anybody, helped convince Reagan to embrace supply-side economics, designed to stimulate growth through tax reduction.

Kemp’s tax bill was defeated in the House, but a similar measure was approved two years later, offering a 25% cut in taxes. He favored a return to the gold standard and took a hard line against the Soviet Union, supported aid for the Nicaraguan Contras and was a firm friend of Israel.

In many ways Kemp was ahead of his time in Republican circles, calling for the party to embrace all races and ethnicities and pushing for inclusion of blacks, Latinos and Jews.

“He was viewed very much as not only the carrier of supply-side economics, going back to the Reagan days, but he was really the guy who always talked about the ‘big tent,’ ” Feulner said Saturday.

Kemp always thought about how to “add and multiply” the party, Feulner said.

Viewing himself as a neo-conservative, Kemp forged a new conservative activism among younger Republicans, breaking with the moderate old guard of the party that included George H.W. Bush, Dole and House stalwarts like Robert Michel. In the process, he became an ideological model for a generation of leaders that included future House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

“Jack rose to be a major national political figure and somebody considered as a presidential candidate on the strength of his personality, his drive and ideas,” Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Times some years ago. “That’s not something that happens very often for House members.”

But despite his looks and charisma, he did poorly on the national stage. His economic concepts, which he sold on the stump with the zeal of a fundamentalist preacher, seemed wonkish and failed to convert voters. His campaign style was seen as undisciplined and impatient. Political analysts saw him as unwilling to play politics in a manner what would bring victory at the polls.

“If I could remove two-thirds of your knowledge and three-fourths of your vocabulary, I could make you into a decent candidate,” veteran Republican consultant Edward J. Rollins recalled telling him.

Kemp was born in Los Angeles on July 13, 1935. He was the third of four sons of Paul R. Kemp, who owned a small trucking company in downtown Los Angeles, and Frances Pope Kemp, a social worker who spoke fluent Spanish. The Kemps were Republicans and Christian Scientists. (Kemp became a Presbyterian after his marriage and for years considered himself a born-again Christian).

At the dinner table, Frances Kemp insisted that her sons deal with important issues.

“It was,” Kemp’s younger brother, Dick, told The Times some years ago, “a family where ideas mattered, and concepts were important.”

From their father, the Kemp boys learned about people by spending time at his firm either driving trucks or loading them, often working side by side with minority employees.

Kemp graduated from Fairfax High School in 1953. His classmates included musician Herb Alpert and Larry Sherry, who became a star pitcher with the Dodgers. The school’s population was largely Jewish at the time and informed Kemp’s views on Israel in his political career.

Kemp was a solid football player at Fairfax with a strong arm, but his overall size -- 5-feet-10, 150 pounds -- kept him from being recruited by major colleges like USC or UCLA. He went instead to Occidental College in Eagle Rock, which years later would become an academic home of Barack Obama.

Kemp played ball, competed in track, was bright but unmotivated in the classroom and earned a degree in physical education. He also met Joanne Main, one year his junior. They wed and had four children, one of whom, Jeff, quarterbacked for several NFL teams, including the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. The Kemps also have 17 grandchildren.

After graduating from Occidental in 1957, Kemp was drafted in the 17th round by the NFL’s Detroit Lions. They had two other outstanding quarterbacks, and Kemp was cut before the season began. He was with the Pittsburgh Steelers that year, mainly riding the bench, but didn’t stick. Over the next three seasons, he was signed and cut by several NFL and Canadian Football League squads. He began resurrecting his football career in 1960, when he signed with the Los Angeles Chargers of the fledgling American Football League.

An Army reservist, Kemp was called to active duty in 1961 but failed the physical because of an old football injury.

When the Chargers moved to San Diego that year, Kemp went with them. Within two years, he had fallen into disfavor with team management and was picked up by the Buffalo Bills. Kemp’s best seasons were in upstate New York. He led the Bills to four division titles and two AFL championships in seven years. When he retired in 1969, he held three all-time AFL records with 3,055 pass attempts, 1,428 completions and 21,130 yards gained passing. His No. 15 was retired by the Bills. But Kemp also endured concussions, a separated shoulder, a crushed finger and two broken ankles.

“Jack Kemp was an extraordinary American leader who became a trusted colleague and exceptional friend to countless NFL owners, team personnel and commissioners after his MVP playing career with the Buffalo Bills,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Saturday. “Jack believed strongly in the positive values that football represented, and he helped promote those values over six decades.”

Kemp was a co-founder of the league’s players association and served as its head from 1965 to 1970. During his tenure, he negotiated a wage and benefits package with the league’s owners.

He continued to develop his intellect by studying free-market economics. While his teammates might be reviewing the sports pages, he spent his time with the Wall Street Journal or Barron’s. He also took graduate courses at Cal State Long Beach and California Western University.

During the early 1960s, he had developed a friendship with Herb Klein, editor of the San Diego Union and a friend and aide to Richard Nixon. Kemp later worked for Reagan, then California’s governor, as a liaison to local and county governments.

So when he retired from football, it was not entirely unexpected that Republican Party leaders -- perhaps encouraged by Nixon’s White House -- would approach him to run for the 39th Congressional District seat that encompassed parts of Buffalo.

“Finding Jack Kemp was like finding the Holy Grail,” Al Bellanca, a GOP official in the Buffalo area, had told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

At a time of wide divisions in the country over the Vietnam War, Kemp campaigned on a notion that “people want candidates who will stand up and say what is right about America.” President Nixon and Vice President Agnew campaigned for Kemp, who won the seat with 52% of the vote.

He would serve in the House over the next 18 years, most of the time winning reelection handily, often with more than 70% of the vote. Only in his last House campaign in 1986, against James P. Keane, did his share of the vote fall to under 60%.

Kemp’s popularity was based on his ability to bring federal funds into the district and high name recognition from his days with the Bills.

Believing he was the philosophical heir to Reagan, Kemp ran against a sitting vice president, George H. W. Bush, for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1988, but his campaign themes failed to catch on and he quit after a mediocre Super Tuesday showing.

Rollins later wrote that “Jack was a totally unmanageable candidate. He was impossible to discipline and simply wouldn’t listen. He loved making speeches and relished the intellectual combat of candidate forums and debates. He had magic with the crowds. But he fought us tooth-and-nail over the rest of [what] a candidate has to do to get elected.”

“I call it the quarterback mentality,” Rollins wrote. “Quarterbacks think they can always make the big play and resent being controlled by anyone.”

Bush surprised Kemp by offering him a Cabinet post, albeit a relatively minor one as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Calling himself a “bleeding-heart conservative,” Kemp traveled the country offering a gospel of economic empowerment. Taking over an agency beset by scandal during the Reagan years, Kemp instituted reforms, encouraged urban renewal and espoused tenant ownership of public housing projects.

But Bush’s presidency was not focused on domestic policy, and there was little financial support for Kemp’s ambitious plans, which he said were part of an effort to make the GOP seem less like a party that espoused “small government and big prisons.” His main value to the Bush presidency, observers said, was his ability to work well with black mayors and in black neighborhoods around the country.

After leaving government, Kemp continued to go his own political way. In 1994, he stunned California Republicans, including Gov. Pete Wilson, by denouncing Proposition 187, the ballot initiative that Wilson supported to cut off most public services to illegal immigrants, as a threat to civil liberties, racial harmony and “the soul of the Republican Party.”

But in 1996, Dole selected Kemp as his running mate, surprising political observers. The choice was celebrated by party conservatives, with then-Speaker Gingrich calling Kemp “fabulous.” The selection was also praised by some party moderates because of Kemp’s reputation as an advocate for broadening the GOP’s appeal to minorities and because of his proven electoral appeal to blue-collar Democrats.

In the end, however, Kemp’s presence failed to increase the Republican ticket’s ability to attract centrist voters or trigger a measurable defection among Democrats, allowing President Clinton to win reelection handily.

Kemp began writing a syndicated column in 2000 and a year later formed the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies to “counter the terrorist propaganda efforts,” according to his biography on the website of Kemp Partners, a consulting firm he founded.

In 2005 he co-chaired the Council on Foreign Relations’ Russia Task Force and in 2007 he co-chaired the Lincoln Bicentennial Cabinet. That same year the Jack F. Kemp Institute for Political Economy was launched as part of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. The Malibu university has established a special collection of Kemp’s papers from his time in Congress, as HUD secretary and after.

“He took ideas seriously and believed very strongly that ideas were the raw materials of laws,” Feulner said, “and that’s why he tried so hard to move ideas along.”