WASHINGTON — Jack Kemp, the ex-quarterback, congressman, one-time vice presidential nominee and self-described "bleeding-heart conservative," died Saturday. He was 73.
Kemp died after a lengthy illness, according to spokeswoman Bona Park and Edwin J. Feulner, a longtime friend and former campaign adviser. Park said Kemp died at his home in Bethesda, Md., in the Washington suburbs.
Kemp had announced in January that he had been diagnosed with cancer. He said he was undergoing tests but gave no other details.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Kemp "one of the nation's most distinguished public servants. Jack was a powerful voice in American politics for more than four decades."
Kemp, a former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, represented western New York for nine terms in Congress, leaving the House for an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988.
Running with Dole
Eight years later, after serving a term as President George H.W. Bush's housing secretary, he made it onto the national ticket as Bob Dole's running mate.
With that loss, the Republican bowed out of political office, but not out of politics. In speaking engagements and a syndicated column, he continued to advocate for the tax reform and supply-side policies — the idea that the more taxes are cut the more the economy will grow — that he pioneered.
Kemp's rapid and wordy style made the enthusiastic speaker with the neatly side-parted white hair a favorite on the lecture circuit — and a millionaire.
His style didn't win over everyone. In his memoirs, former Vice President Dan Quayle wrote that at Cabinet meetings, Bush would be irked by Kemp's habit of going off on tangents and not making "any discernible point."
Kemp also signed on with numerous educational and corporate boards and charitable organizations, including NFL Charities, which kept him connected to his football roots.
A $100 quarterback
Kemp was a 17th round 1957 NFL draft pick by the Detroit Lions but was cut before the season began. After being released by three more NFL teams and the Canadian Football League over the next three years, he joined the American Football League's Los Angeles Chargers as a free agent in 1960. A waivers foul-up two years later would land him with the Buffalo Bills, who got him at the bargain basement price of $100.
Kemp led Buffalo to the 1964 and 1965 AFL Championships, and won the league's most valuable player award in 1965. He co-founded the AFL Players Association in 1964 and was elected president of the union for five terms. When he retired from football in 1969, Kemp had enough support in blue-collar Buffalo and its suburbs to win an open congressional seat.
He told a gathering during a return trip in 2007 that he still tried to catch as many Bills games as possible but mostly on television. Efforts to be in the stands were reserved for family.
"I've got 17 grandchildren, 10 of whom play football, so I spend my weekends flying around the country going to football games," he said.
In 11 seasons, he sustained a dozen concussions, two broken ankles and a crushed hand, which Kemp insisted a doctor permanently set in a passing position so that he could continue to play.
Preparation for politics
"Pro football gave me a good perspective," he was quoted as saying. "When I entered the political arena, I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded, and hung in effigy."
Kemp was born in California to Christian Scientist parents. He worked on the loading docks of his father's trucking company as a boy before majoring in physical education at Occidental College, where he led the nation's small colleges in passing.
He became a Presbyterian after marrying his college sweetheart, Joanne Main. The couple had four children, including two sons who played professional football. He joined with a son and son-in-law to form a Washington strategic consulting firm, Kemp Partners, after leaving office.
Through his political life, Kemp's positions spanned the social spectrum: He opposed abortion and supported school prayer, yet appealed to liberals with his outreach toward minorities and compassion for the poor. He pushed for immigration reform to include a guest-worker program and status for the illegal immigrants already here.
At the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, he proposed more than 50 programs to combat urban blight and homelessness and was an early and strong advocate of enterprise zones.
In 1993, along with former Education Secretary William Bennett and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick, he co-founded Empower America, a public policy organization intended to promote economic growth, job creation and entrepreneurship.
His choice as Dole's 1996 running mate was seen as a way for the Republican Party to reach groups of voters that Dole could not. And it came even after Kemp endorsed Steve Forbes for the nomination — a move many considered political suicide — and declared himself a "recovering politician."
Dole's more sober demeanor contrasted sharply by Kemp's high-spiritedness, which was recalled in various accounts, including one by Marlin Fitzwater, Bush's press secretary.
Fitzwater wrote in his memoirs about a time when Kemp lunged at Secretary of State James Baker III in the Oval Office. The housing secretary was "nagging, nagging, nagging" Bush to recognize the breakaway Soviet satellite of Lithuania and Baker, the color rising in his face, screamed an epithet at Kemp, Fitzwater recalled. Kemp bounded across the furniture and grabbed at Baker's throat. They were pulled apart to avoid a fistfight.
Thompson reported from Buffalo, N.Y.