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's office announced in January that he had been diagnosed with an unspecificed type of cancer. By then, however, the cancer was in an advanced stage and had spread to several organs, Feulner said. He did not know the origin of the cancer.
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."
Former President George W. Bush expressed his sorrow after hearing of Kemp's death.
"Laura and I are saddened by the death of Jack Kemp." he said. "Jack 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. Jack's wife Joanne and the rest of the Kemp family are in our thoughts and prayers."
Family spokeswoman Marci Robinson said Kemp died shortly after 6 p.m. surrounded by his family.
"During the treatment of his cancer, Jack expressed his gratitude for the thoughts and prayers of so many friends, a gratitude which the Kemp family shares," according to a family statement.
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.
Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, a Kemp family friend and his former campaign deputy chief of staff, said Kemp's legacy will be his compassion.
"The idea that all conservatives really should regroup around and identify with is that this is not an exclusive club," Feulner said. "Freedom is for everyody. That's what Jack Kemp really stood for."
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.
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.
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."
Longtime football colleague, Billy Shaw, a Hall of Fame offensive guard who played for the Bills with Kemp, said his friend was extremely smart.
"Jack was probably one of the most intelligent men that I've ever been around, and I'm not just talking football," Shaw said. "He was one of those kind of people that drew you to him because of his ability to communicate and the intelligence that was there.
"He was the kind of politician he was because he wrapped his arms around the people in Buffalo and represented them so well."
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 voter 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.