Kemp called his own plays on political field

Jack Kemp was in a small private jet between campaign stops somewhere over Iowa in 1987, trying to decide between the two videos he had brought along.

He slipped the one featuring highlights from past Super Bowls into the player on the bulkhead and handed to the reporter seated next to him a stack of briefing papers that the only other passengers on the jet - two campaign aides to the congressman and former Buffalo Bills quarterback - had hoped he would read.

Later, he played the other video - highlights of President Kennedy’s speeches. The gravelly voiced 1988 Republican presidential primary hopeful didn’t think he needed briefing papers.

For more than a decade Mr. Kemp had been briefing his legislative colleagues and the public on the virtues of economic growth through lower taxes and the promotion of an “entrepreneurial spirit” - all the while chumming around with black politicians, with Hispanics, with Democrats, preaching his conservative ideas with the same ease he had with minority athletes when he was a football star.

Surrounded by family, the voluble, irrepressibly optimistic Mr. Kemp, 73, died of cancer shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday, at his home in Bethesda. He was married to Joanne Main, his college sweetheart, with whom he had four children and 17 grandchildren.

When he was chosen as Kansas Republican Bob Dole’s vice-presidential running mate in 1996, Mr. Kemp insisted on campaigning in America’s Spanish-speaking barrios, even though frustrated advisers kept telling him few potential Republican votes were to be found there. He did it anyway, because he thought it was the right thing to do.

“Jack was an eternal optimist who was always searching for solutions that would help the American people,” Mr. Dole said Sunday. “Jack and I really got to know one another in the 1996 presidential race. We lost, but Jack’s enthusiasm and his willingness to reach out to Americans everywhere made the race an exciting one.”

By 1987, Mr. Kemp had taken a place second only to Ronald Reagan in getting Americans of various philosophical temperaments, including more than a few Democrats, to see why what he called “supply-side economics” would “like a rising tide, lift all boats” and thus improve the lives and incomes of all: poor and rich, black and white.

From the late 1970s on, he gradually became the leading symbol of a new brand of “opportunity society” conservatism, tirelessly promoting a tax-cut plan - the Kemp-Roth Act - that became a centerpiece of Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential campaign and came to fruition in 1981 in the form of a 25 percent cut in personal and corporate income taxes.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan called him “one of the strongest Reagan ‘cheerleaders’ we’ve ever had, spreading the message of prosperity through freedom and tax reductions.”

But in 1982, Mr. Kemp would lead fellow Republican supply-siders in Congress in an unheard-of rebellion against Mr. Reagan’s intention to sign a bill that would impose what remains - in inflation-adjusted dollars - the largest tax increase in American history: the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, whose chief supporter was Mr. Dole, then the Senate majority leader.

To the irritation of some on the political right, Mr. Kemp proudly tagged himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative.” He fought efforts by Mr. Dole and President George H.W. Bush to cut Social Security benefits in order to reduce the federal budget deficit. He called such moves “green eyeshades economics,” which played into the image of Republicans as heartless, old-fashioned and self-defeating.

He represented the Buffalo area of New York in the U.S. House from 1973 to 1989, and became the Housing and Urban Development secretary for Mr. Bush’s term.

“Jack Kemp never made it to the presidency or the vice presidency but like Ronald Reagan, he got people excited enough about politics and ideas to run for office in the 1980s and ‘90s - and many of them would play tapes of Kemp speeches between campaign stops,” said J. David Hoppe, who was Mr. Kemp’s congressional chief of staff.

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About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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