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.
As if to illustrate Mr. Hoppe’s point, Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, said Sunday that Mr. Kemp “was a great idea man and certainly was one of those Republicans who helped shape my thinking. He was one of the first people that I met with as far as political leaders when I first ran for Congress back in 1994.”
A devotee of the idea that America and the world would be better off if it returned the dollar to something like the gold standard, Mr. Kemp himself was the standard by which the Reagan and post-Reagan wave of Republican lawmakers set their philosophical and policy goals.
“A lot of his ideas shaped a lot of our party with the Republican revolution and the whole Contract with America,” Mr. Ensign said.
President Obama, in extending his and his wife Michelle’s condolences to the Kemp family, said on Sunday that Mr. Kemp “was a man who could fiercely advocate his own beliefs and principles while also remembering the lessons he learned years earlier on the football field: that bitter divisiveness between race and class and station only stood in the way of the ‘common aim of a team to win.’ ”
Mr. Kemp’s knack for winning friends and influencing political enemies even while talking the figurative mile-a-minute and never using a short word when a long one was available won him personal loyalties that far exceeded his election victories.
“More than anybody else in Republican politics, he knew how to explain how free markets lead to hope and opportunity,” said former Reagan White House adviser Peter J. Ferrara. “Jack was the Republican who could and did draw support from black, Hispanic and other minorities.”
To the frustration of his close friend and 1996 campaign adviser Edwin J. Feulner, Mr. Kemp’s belief that he didn’t need advice and that his opponents were the ones who needed the briefing - not him - led him to repeat, in effect, what he did in that plane over Iowa in 1987: choosing to do something else rather than knuckling down to study for the debate with Al Gore.
“Sadly, Kemp’s heart never appeared to be into running for vice president,” said Chris Healey, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party. “Kemp was the signal caller, after all, and it was difficult to rein in his personality and not outshine the dour Dole, who was always skeptical of the supply-side crowd.”
Some Democrats who Mr. Kemp had befriended often seized opportunities to make partisan use of that friendship. Calling Mr. Kemp a friend, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said Sunday that “I hope that Jack’s passing will be a lesson to the Republicans of today that their future should be more embracing and more inclusive.”
But Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a civil-rights icon, called him Sunday “a statesman who, especially in his later years, tried to reach across the aisle to solve some of our nation’s problems. He was deeply concerned about the struggles of urban America, especially those of inner-city youth. His voice will be deeply missed.”
Mr. Kemp frequently said his attitudes on race were shaped by his football career, most of which was spent with the Buffalo Bills in the American Football League. He led the Bills to AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, and brought the team within a game of the first Super Bowl in1967.
“Pro football gave me a good perspective. When I entered the political arena, I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded, and hung in effigy,” he once said.
He also got his first taste of politics in the football context, co-founding the AFL Players Association and serving five terms as its elected president. He later worked with the NFL on player and union issues.
“Jack remains a legendary figure in our team’s history,” the Bills said in statement. “His many outstanding, unique qualities made him the exemplary role model of leadership for our team and later for our country. While today’s news brings us much sadness, we cherish the many fond memories of Jack.”
Mr. Kemp frequently ended conversations by saying, “Keep the faith.” Sure that he will, his admirers now reluctantly end their conversation with him.