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The Thunder on the Right Is from Rep. Jack Kemp, Washington's Man to Watch

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His supporters on Capitol Hill eagerly point out the evocative initials—JFK. Indeed, there are other, more palpable intimations of Kennedyesque charisma in Congressman Jack French Kemp. He is dazzlingly articulate, athletic, handsome and wholesome. There’s the smartly preppy thatch of hair sweeping down across an ever-tanned forehead, the natty suits and confident grins, the jabbing fingers and slashing hands. If Kennedy had the heroics of PT-109 in his past, Kemp once conquered foes of another kind as an All-AFL quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills in the 1960s. At 45, the six-term Republican from suburban Buffalo, N.Y. is still proving to be a successful scrambler at a different game. A formidable campaigner and a presidential favorite, Kemp has parlayed conservative politics and glamorous style into a Reagan administration power base that even his detractors concede may someday extend to the White House. He is, effuses one backer, no less than “the second most influential Republican in the country after Ronald Reagan.”

Right now, Jack Kemp is ardently preaching throughout the land the supply-side sermon that lies at the heart of his tax-cutting Kemp-Roth legislative plan. Bounding off a plane at New York’s La Guardia Airport not long ago, Kemp flagged a taxi to Manhattan and tested his economic gospel on a bemused cabby. “How much do you make a year?” “How much did you pay in taxes last year?” “If you had to pay less would you work harder?” When the driver answered to his satisfaction, Kemp settled back into his seat and beamed with pleasure.

In contrast, his Capitol Hill opponents are frowning. They contend a massive tax cut—Kemp-Roth calls for a 30 percent drop in three years—would only add to inflation. Moreover, Kemp is seen as no Republican JFK but as a smooth yet naive pitchman, the GOP’s Great White-Bread Hope for the next decade. His style has been likened to Robert Redford’s slickly packaged faceman in the 1972 political satire The Candidate. Not that this disturbs Kemp supporters. “The future of the GOP in the House,” says Georgia Rep. Newton Gingrich, “lies with those members who are excited by Jack Kemp, not those who resent him.”

Kemp is reluctant to face the possibility that his tax-cutting proposals could be watered down by Congress, though he now supports President Reagan’s 25 percent, three-year plan. Even if that compromise package fails, he vows to keep fighting. “It wouldn’t be a defeat for me,” Jack asserts confidently, “but for the economy. I see this as a move toward a goal—the whole issue of economic growth in the ’80s.”

That’s just the sort of slickly cadenced mediagenic rhetoric that is both Kemp’s strength and his potential weakness. Even an ally like Erie County (N.Y.) GOP boss Victor Farley concedes, “It may not be as much the substance of what he says as the aura he gives off—the way he packages his concepts.” Another longtime party pal exuberantly mixes not only his metaphors but his helmets: “The guys in the trenches need a quarterback, a glamour person. We’d like to see him get his hands a little dirtier.”

Kemp’s Democratic opponents back home have been more blunt—and deprecating. George Wessel, head of the 100,000-strong AFL-CIO Council in Buffalo, claims: “The working people of this community cannot count on Kemp. He offers them not hope but fear for their economic prospects, not growth but impoverishment, not a vision of the future but a faded memory of days gone by.”

Yet even his critics concede that Kemp’s intelligence and hard work contributed to raising Kemp-Roth from the political backwater to conservative canon. “I don’t think my detractors would call me just a football player now,” he says. “I think I’ve overcome that.”

More than anything else, Kemp’s crusade has earned him precious clout and access to Reagan. As newly elected chairman of the House Republican Conference, he attends weekly meetings with the President and frequently sits in on economic discussions. “If you hear the President speak, it’s obvious I’ve had some impact,” he observes. “There was a time,” he goes on, “when I thought I was the only one pushing an idea. Now I’m more relaxed.”

But no less energetic. Last year he accumulated dozens of political IOUs by campaigning as Ronald Reagan’s issues spokesman, not to mention appearing for 50-odd other Republican candidates. In one recent week Kemp, who often receives up to 300 appearance requests a month, spoke before an Iowa GOP group, an Israeli trade council in Jerusalem, the White House Fellows, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the New York State Bankers Association. His lectures also have given him a chance to sound off on other issues. He has asked for aid to El Salvador, is staunchly pro-Israel (even after the U.S. condemned Begin’s attack on Iraq’s nuke plant), is pro-life and pro-business, and favors heavy defense outlays and reestablishment of ties with Taiwan. In 1978 Kemp’s votes won him a 96 percent rating from the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action and a contrasting 15 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Erie County Democratic Chairman Joseph Crangle says, “In the view of labor, environmentalists and small business, his record is abhorrent.”

But Kemp’s savvy enough to know he can—and must—go home again two weekends a month to mend fences in his middle-class district in the Buffalo suburbs. In 1970 he took over a seat previously held by a liberal Democrat and has won reelection by whopping pluralities ever since.

Having bridged the social and ethnic gaps between blue-collar and white-collar at home (his own wealth beyond his congressman’s salary of $60,662 is relatively modest), Kemp now seems careful to avoid over-identification with any conservative stripe. He seeks out discussions with liberal economists like Walter Heller. “The word ‘right’ smacks of anti-Semitism, bigotry and prejudice,” he says, “and I am not that kind of a person.” Nor is he always in complete agreement with Reagan. “His rhetoric is more anti-government than mine,” Kemp says. “Our relationship is one of mutual trust and respect. But I think government is recognized by many people in this country as a source of assistance. Orthodox conservative economics wasn’t going to put people back to work, and too many are out of jobs back in my district [his constituents include Poles, Germans and Italians and a preponderance of steelworkers]. I look for answers and solutions, not dogma. You can’t play quarterback for 13 years,” he adds, “and not come away with some sense of overall vision.”

As the second of four sons growing up in central L.A. near Wilshire Boulevard, Kemp found “it was sports 24 hours a day.” His father, Paul, who died in 1977, built a small messenger service up to a trucking firm. (His mother, Clare, died in 1969.) Kemp attended Fairfax H.S. (one classmate was musician Herb Alpert) and went on to L.A.’s Occidental College, where he majored in phys ed, joined a jock fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, co-captained the Occidental Tigers and made Little All-America honorable mention. But any political ambitions were at least temporarily squelched when he lost a bid for class president.

After turning pro at 6’2″, 205 pounds (his current weight), Kemp rode the bench on five teams (one in Canada) before finding a home in 1960 with the then L.A. Chargers in the expansion American Football League. They moved to San Diego a year later. Kemp led the team to two division titles before one of his many injuries—a broken finger on his passing hand—sidelined him for much of the 1962 season. (In his career Kemp suffered countless fractures, dislocations and concussions.) The Bills, using a league loophole, snatched him from the Chargers’ injured reserve list for $100. Kemp promptly began building a constituency on the gridiron, passing the Bills to the AFL title in 1964 and 1965. At his peak, in those pre-free-agent days, he earned a whopping $45,000.

Kemp’s homework didn’t stop at the playbook. He was a co-founder and for five years president of the AFL Players Association. As Ed Rutkowski, his backup QB and now Erie County Executive, recalls, “He used to go down to the bookstore at training camp and read Business Week and the Wall Street Journal instead of partying.” Bills ex-coach Lou Saban, now president of the New York Yankees, adds, “Everyone was rather suspicious of Jack boarding a plane with an armload of books, and kidded him about who he was trying to impress.”

Immersed in late-’60s California conservatism, Kemp did impress one football buff: the then governor, Ronald Reagan, for whom Kemp worked as a volunteer campaign aide in 1966 and as a staff intern after the election. In 1970 Kemp quit football and, parlaying his recognizable name, ran for Congress in the 38th CD outside Buffalo. “I told the people in Buffalo,” Kemp jokes, “that if I lose, I’ll come back to quarterback. It scared them to death and they sent me to Congress.”

Kemp and his California-bred wife of 23 years, Joanne Main, now live in a fashionable but unpretentious Bethesda, Md. home with their own supply side: Jeff, 21, a Dartmouth football star who will try out at QB with the L.A. Rams this summer; Jennifer, 18, a Miami of Ohio sophomore; Judith, 15, a high school cheerleader; and Jimmy, 9, a precocious fourth-grade jock. Joanne, whom Kemp met when she dated a fraternity brother of his, frequently travels with Jack, presides over the Congressional Wives Club, is active at their nearby Presbyterian church, and conducts weekly Bible study groups at home. Success is nothing new to Kemp’s family: His brother Paul is now president of an L.A. electronics firm; brother Tom is president of a Coca-Cola bottling company in L.A.; and brother Dick works with the Christian Science Church in Boston.

The family acts as a refuge from the political grind, and as a political resource for Kemp. They ski together each winter at Aspen and the kids will often defer dinner until Dad comes home—”usually,” sighs Joanne, “8:30 to 9.”

Kemp unwinds by reading or watching an occasional football game with friends like Dave Stockman. According to neighbor Chuck Marck, “He’s the only guy I know who can watch pro football on TV and read a book at the same time.” Kemp’s sometime tennis partner, FBI chief William Webster, moans, “How can such a straight arrow be so mean at the net?” Another indication of his competitiveness is a plaque on display in his office. On it is engraved a quote attributed to Vince Lombardi: “Winning is not a sometime thing. It is an all-time thing.”

As for higher office, Kemp supporters laid the groundwork by lofting a vice-presidential balloon at the 1980 GOP Convention. In 1982 he could possibly take a crack at New York Gov. Hugh Carey or Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The more prudent course, though, may be to avoid such risks by continuing to build a political base in the House. “I don’t buy the idea,” he hedges gracefully, “that to be successful in politics you have to always be climbing.” But Kemp’s childhood friend Mike Quint states flatly that “he wants to be President. He has a singleness of purpose like no one else I know.” But Jack demurs, noting with an ever-so-disarming grin, “Speculating about becoming the commissioner of the National Football League—now that is power.”