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Happy Birthday, Jack Kemp, Football Star and Politician

July 13, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
After a successful career as an AFL quarterback, Jack Kemp entered politics and spent 18 years in Congress before becoming secretary of Housing and Urban Development. A devoted advocate of tax cuts and supply-side economics, he strongly influenced President Reagan’s economic policies.

Jack Kemp’s Early Days

Jack Francis Kemp was born in Los Angeles on July 13, 1935. He worked in his father’s trucking company, where he learned “about hard work and tolerance while toiling alongside a racially diverse crew,” according to the University of Southern California.

After attended Fairfax High School, which was 95 percent Jewish; USC credits his high school experiences for his support of Jewish causes during his life in politics. Kemp excelled as his school’s quarterback, but large universities such as USC and UCLA didn’t recruit him because, Kemp believed, he was too small. Instead, he went to Division III Occidental College, where he played three sports and made the Little All-America team for football.

Kemp focused more on football than on academics during his time at Oxy, and upon his graduation in 1953 he set out to play professionally. He was cut by a series of National Football League teams and even a Canadian team before being signed in 1960 by the Los Angeles Chargers of the newly formed American Football League.

Kemp’s Careers in Football and Politics

Playing for Sid Gillman, one of the great innovators of the passing offense, Kemp became one of the AFL’s first stars. He moved to the Buffalo Bills in 1962, and led the team to AFL championships in 1964 and ’65. During his 10-year career, he played in five AFL championship games, made the all-star team seven times, and set the league record for career pass attempts, completions and passing yards gained.

Kemp retired in 1970 after local Republicans convinced him to run for an open congressional seat in the Buffalo suburbs; Kemp won the election, due in large part to his celebrity. Although he did not study politics or law in school as many politicians do, he made up for it by reading and studying extensively about politics and economics during his time as a football player and during his first years in office.

It was the work of Arthur B. Laffer that introduced Kemp to supply-side economics, and inspired him to pursue bills for tax cuts while in the House and encourage the RNC to take the same stance. During the Reagan era the president supported a 23 percent tax cut that derived from the Kemp-Roth bill introduced earlier.

Jack Kemp attempted to get the Republican bid for president in 1988. During his campaign, he highlighted his role in “Reaganomics.” When it became clear that Kemp could not win, he dropped out of the race and the Republican bid went to George H.W. Bush, who ended up winning the election.

In 1989, Kemp was made secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), ending his 18-year seat in the House of Representatives. Under the previous HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce, fraud and mismanagement at HUD cost taxpayers $2 billion. Time magazine reported that as Kemp found himself wading through the thick of the department’s troubles, he remarked that he had “wanted to make HUD a high-profile agency. I don’t think this is what I had in mind.”

Jack Kemp was the vice presidential running mate with Bob Dole in the 1996 election. The Dole/Kemp campaign hinged around lowering taxes and pushing for smaller government. The loss of this election marked the end of Kemp’s career in national politics.

The Rest of the Story

In 2007, Forbes magazine asked Kemp to define “the American Dream.” He offered a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I am not ashamed to confess that 25 years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flatboat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son. I want every man to have a chance.” Kemp acknowledged that while President Lincoln was referencing mankind in general, he would change the definition to say “every man, woman and child in America.”

In the years leading up to his death, Kemp worked at his firm, Kemp Partners, traveling the world doing consulting work as well as serving on a number of corporate boards. He chaired Habitat for Humanity’s “More than Houses” campaign and was a nationally syndicated columnist writing about economics, trade and foreign policy. He died on May 2, 2009, of cancer.

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