Jack Kemp, the former pro quarterback who turned fame on the gridiron into a career in national politics and a crusade for lower taxes, has died of cancer at age 73. Family spokeswoman Marci Robinson said Kemp died shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday May 2nd, surrounded by his family and pastor. Kemp died at his home in Bethesda, Md., in the Washington suburbs, friends said.
Kemp's office announced in January that he had been diagnosed with an unspecified type of cancer. By then, however, the cancer was in an advanced stage and had spread to several organs, former campaign adviser Edwin J. Feulner said. He did not know the origin of the cancer. 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.
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.
"Jack was an eternal optimist who was always searching for solutions that would help the American people," Dole said. "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."
Praise rolled in from fellow politicians. "Jack Kemp's commitment to public service and his passion for politics influenced not only the direction of his party, but his country," President Barack Obama said in a statement issued Sunday. Obama praised Kemp as "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."
"A great friend of freedom" was how former Vice President Dick Cheney described Kemp. "He was a person who brought the same enthusiasm and energy to politics that he brought to football," said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat. "And you could tell, whether it was a battle of ideas or a battle on the gridiron, Jack Kemp threw himself into it completely."
Former President George W. Bush said Kemp "will be remembered for his significant contributions to the Reagan revolution and his steadfast dedication to conservative principles during his long and distinguished career in public service."
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., called Kemp "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."
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 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.
"While today's news brings us much sadness, we cherish the many fond memories of Jack the loving husband and father, Jack the quarterback and Jack the congressman and we celebrate his life well lived. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Joanne and their entire family," the Bills said Sunday in a statement.
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. "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."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said "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."
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.