Ex-Colleague Remembers Jack Kemp

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Former Rep. Vin Weber talks to host Jacki Lyden about the death of Jack Kemp, his former colleague in the House of Representatives.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

He liked to call himself a bleeding-heart conservative. Jack Kemp died last night at age 73. He rose to prominence as a football star.

(Soundbite of football game)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Jack Kemp (unintelligible), and the Bills lead at halftime.

LYDEN: Then traded calling plays on the gridiron for penning bills on Capitol Hill.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. JACK KEMP (Former Republican Representative, New York): President Reagan, I think, is right about this legislation. It's not a fair-trade bill. It's a less-trade bill.

LYDEN: Jack Kemp hoped to succeed Ronald Reagan in the White House but could never build enough support to get the Republican presidential nomination, though he did fill the number two slot on the GOP ticket in 1996.

Vin Weber was alongside for much of Jack Kemp's political journey, and the former congressman from Minnesota joins us from his home in Alexandria, Virginia.

You were a good friend of Jack Kemp's for many years. You ran the Kemp for President campaign. What shoved him to move from quarterbacking on the football field to leading the conservative charge on the political field?

Mr. VIN WEBER (Former Republican Representative, Minnesota): Jack used to like to say that it was a logical move for him from quarterbacking a football team to leading in politics. He…

LYDEN: He was with the Buffalo Bills, of course.

Mr. WEBER: For the - well, yeah, the Bills was where he was the star. He liked to talk about the fact that the same qualities of decisiveness that a quarterback needs are what you need in a good political leader. He was always interested in putting together an affirmative agenda, trying to figure out how to win the argument and move the ball forward politically just as he once had in sports.

LYDEN: He had a major role in defining Ronald Reagan's economic philosophy because his name was, after all, on the landmark 1981 tax-cut plan called Kemp-Roth, and yet he didn't have a background in economics. So how did that come about?

Mr. WEBER: Well, Jack was elected to Congress, of course, up in Buffalo in the early 1970s, and he didn't - he was a conservative but didn't have a particularly well-developed economic philosophy, but the economy turned sour in the early '70s, particularly in old-line industrial towns like Buffalo.

And Jack really immersed himself in learning about economics in order to find something that was positive and hopeful for his constituents, and he may not have had an academic background in economics. But, boy, I tell you, he was constantly reading, constantly devouring everything he could find about economics, and he developed a very well-defined philosophy, but it came out of his desire to say something to his constituents other than no.

LYDEN: But he was a Reagan stalwart. He did have his own strong views about things, and one of them was focusing on the problems of reaching out to black voters. With Barack Obama in the White House and such small support for Republicans among blacks, do you think the party ever really embraced that part of Jack Kemp's philosophy and approach?

Mr. WEBER: I'm sorry to say that I don't think that they did, and they still should try. He didn't just think that it was a political strategy. Jack felt that as a deep passion. Most of us think that that had something to do with the fact that he did spend much of his life as a professional athlete and had to go to work every day with people of different races, particularly a lot of African-Americans and couldn't stand the fact that he got into the Republican Party, and it looked like an all-white country club.

So he was very passionate about the Republicans needing to do more to connect with minority voters, particularly African-American voters. And I'm sorry to say, the party did not do well in that regard and it's still a huge challenge facing the Republican Party.

LYDEN: You talked with him regularly and apparently quite recently, yeah?

Mr. WEBER: He came downtown a couple weeks ago, and his son, Jimmy called some folks and said, hey, dad's feeling a little bit better, and why don't you come over and say hello. So I did. And he mentioned several times that he gained 10 pounds, which was good news because he'd been in, you know, chemotherapy, and we thought that he was at least going through a temporary sort of, you know, rebound, which, you know, people with cancer occasionally do.

So although I knew that he had an uphill fight for his life, I guess I thought that he was temporarily, at least, doing better, and I was really shocked last night to hear that he had died so soon after I sat and talked to him.

LYDEN: Vin Weber is a former congressman from Minnesota and a longtime friend of Jack Kemp. Kemp died last night of cancer at age 73. Thank you very much for joining us, Mr. Weber.

Mr. WEBER: Thank you.

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Jack Kemp, Football Player And Politician, Dead

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On Our Soapbox Blog

Jack Kemp, the pro-quarterback turned Republican heavyweight, has died.

He first gained national attention in the early '60s, playing for the San Diego Chargers. But it was with the Buffalo Bills that he won two American Football Championships, in 1964 and 65.

His popularity on the football field helped catapult him into politics. Kemp won a Buffalo-area congressional seat in 1970.

He served in the House for nine terms, where he worked to cut federal taxes and to broaden the Republican Party. In 1988, Kemp ran for president.

He later dropped out of the race, but the man who was elected, George H.W. Bush, offered him a cabinet position as secretary of housing and urban development. There, he pushed for urban renewal and supported tenant ownership in public housing projects.

"I think it's immoral to preach democracy and capitalism in Eastern Europe and not allow it to work in East New York or East St. Louis or eastern L.A.," he said.

In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole picked Kemp as his running mate — a choice celebrated by party conservatives.

They didn't win, but Kemp was a tireless campaigner throughout — often drawing on his football career when things seemed rough politically.

Kemp's office announced that he had cancer in January. He died Saturday night at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 73.

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