When Jack Kemp, who died over the weekend from cancer at the age of 73, ran for vice president with Bob Dole in 1996, the odds were never good. They were behind from the first, and by fall, the press covering Mr. Kemp made bitter little jokes that being assigned to cover his campaign was like being telegraph operators on the Titanic.
That's when I spent a couple days with the campaign. But I was glad because I witnessed one of those rare moments in politics when a man unexpectedly reveals something of his character.
The campaign stopped in Wisconsin, and the plan was for Jack Kemp to appear on a public television show and take calls from voters across the state. He steered almost every answer back to his free market economic policies, and replied with almost numbing detail. Then a call came in from a man who was clearly agitated.
He said he was among many who marched for civil rights during the '60s in Madison. He said Jack Kemp was a famous pro football player then. And he wanted to know why, if Mr. Kemp was such champion of civil rights, he didn't lift a finger to help the civil rights movement then, when a famous athlete might have made a difference.
Mr. Kemp could have reacted with instinctive defensiveness. He was an old quarterback, after all. Instead he held himself back for a moment, and then delivered a personal, remarkable answer. What follows is a paraphrase. But it's stayed in my mind so long, and so vividly, I'm pretty confident of many of the words:
"Well, the first thing I want to say is, you're right," Jack Kemp began. "Like a lot of professional athletes, I was totally self-centered. I concentrated only on my goals, to play in college, then the pros. I knew what was going on, but didn't pay attention, because your coaches and even your parents tell you for your own good, you can't get distracted. But I got to know all different kinds of people playing football. They were my teammates. And we shared everything together, and they told me why, even after all the civil rights bills, they were still uncomfortable playing in certain places during the exhibition season. They told me about the places where, after their careers were over, because we football players didn't make a mint then, the way they do now, they were going to go back and try and make a living, and help others who hadn't been as lucky as we were. They opened my eyes. So when I stopped playing football, I decided that I really wanted to see if I could help create programs and policies that would give more opportunity to people. I wanted to make my party the party of Lincoln again. I reminded my party that we used to be the ones who had to defeat all those old Southern Democratic governors and senators who barred the door to young black kids who just wanted to go to good schools. So, yes, I didn't do what I wished I had - what I should have, during the civil rights movement. But I'm trying to make up for lost time by dedicating the rest of my life to creating justice and equal opportunity. I hope that counts for something, too."
Then he shifted in his chair and said, "I don't mean to put the questioner on the spot. But I wonder how much he's done in recent years. Or does he think the fact that he went to a few demonstrations here in Madison 30 years ago lets him off the hook for the rest of his life?"
There was a long pause on the line before I think you could actually hear a gulp; and the angry questioner just said, "Thank you, Mr. Kemp."
It was one of the few times that I wanted to throw all reportorial propriety aside to applaud. None of us are the person we want to be at every moment in our life. The important thing is to get better as we go along. Yes, thank you, Mr. Kemp.