Who Was Jack Kemp?

Who Was Jack Kemp?

A professional quarterback who learned the value of leadership, teamwork, equality and competition; a leader in Congress who knew the power of ideas, human capital, and opportunity; and a Secretary of Housing and Republican Vice Presidential candidate who spoke passionately of the power of free markets and free people, and the history yet to be written of the free world.

Throughout his career, Jack Kemp transferred lessons and values from the playing field to the political arena. He stood for inclusiveness, engagement and encouragement. He drew support and earned the respect of Americans from all walks of life because he lived his philosophy of principled pragmatism, friendly strife, empowering others and, especially, reaching out to those who had not yet attained the American Dream.

Jack Kemp’s vision of the future was rooted firmly in the “self-evident” truths set forth in America’s founding documents: from the signers of the Declaration of Independence who proclaimed that “all men are created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” to the ratifiers of the U.S. Constitution who aimed “to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.” Abraham Lincoln said our Founders wrote these words to serve as “a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages.” Jack Kemp was a man who held that beacon of freedom high.

While these convictions will serve to inspire the Foundation, the true test of the Foundation’s achievements will be the extent that current and emerging leaders understand his legacy, embrace this passion for the civil competition of ideas, and translate the cause of growth, democracy, freedom and hope into policy and action in the twenty-first century.

Click here to read President Ronald Reagan’s tribute to Jack Kemp.



Jack Kemp, pro football player, congressman, cabinet secretary and vice-presidential candidate, was born in Los Angeles, California on July 13, 1935. The third of four children, Jack and his three brothers grew up in southern California playing football and baseball and attending Fairfax High School in L.A..

Kemp enrolled at Occidental College in 1953, where he played several positions on the football team: quarterback, defensive back, place kicker, and punter. As a junior, Kemp was named captain of the football team and in 1956 led the nations’ small college football teams in passing.

After graduating from college in 1957, Kemp married his college sweetheart, the former Joanne Main. He joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 1958 and served for the next four years, while his career as a professional quarterback was getting underway.

Kemp was drafted by the Detroit Lions out of college in the 17th round and traded to Pittsburgh the same year. After twice being cut and traded twice again, he signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960, where he became team captain. In September of 1962, while he was out with a dislocated middle finger, the Buffalo Bills claimed Kemp from the Chargers for a $100 waiver fee.

By the time he retired from pro football in 1969, Kemp had compiled a record as a seven-time American Football League All Star, five-time All-AFL honoree, two-time AFL Champion, AFL MVP, and AFL Championship Game MVP. He also co-founded the AFL Players Association, became its second president and was re-elected five times.

In 1970, after 13 years of pro football including 7 years playing for Buffalo, Kemp declared his candidacy to represent western New York in the US House of Representatives. As Kemp later told the story, he told a TV interviewer that he’d probably return to football if he lost the election; the newscaster reported that “if Kemp isn’t elected, he has warned the people of Buffalo that he will return to the Buffalo Bills.” Kempexplained, “So they elected me.”

Kemp served in Congress for nine terms (1971-1989). He was elected the incoming Republican freshman class president, and 10 years later was chosen Chairman of the Republican Conference (third ranking in House Republican leadership). An economic conservative, he became known as a champion of “supply-side economics,” enterprise zones, strong national defense and exporting democratic ideals. His ideas were captured in his 1979 book, An American Renaissance and again in his second book in 1984, The American Idea: Ending the Limits to Growth.Although he never served on the Ways and Means Committee, he was the author of the landmark Kemp-Roth tax legislation, signed into law by President Reagan in 1981.

On April 6, 1987 Kemp announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, running on a platform of tax rate cuts, jobs creation through free enterprise, strong families, and peace through strength. During the primaries, Kemp finished 4th in Iowa, 3rd in New Hampshire, and when his campaign did not catch fire, was the first candidate to endorse George H. W. Bush.

Kemp served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1989-1993, where he championed affordable housing, tenant management, and a housing voucher program for homeless veterans and their families.

Upon leaving office in 1993, he joined forces with William Bennett and Jeane Kirkpatrick to found Empower America, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy and advocacy organization dedicated to three founding principles: expanding freedom and democratic capitalism around the world; promoting policies to expand economic growth, job creation, and entrepreneurship for our nation; and advancing social policies which empower people, not government bureaucracies. He also served as chairman of the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform, which promoted major reform and simplification of the U.S. tax code.

Kemp received his Party’s nomination for Vice President at the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego. The Dole-Kemp ticket challenged incumbent Bill Clinton on issues ranging from health care and welfare reform to illegal immigration and ballistic missile defense.

Kemp remained active on corporate boards and public interest commissions, writing a regular syndicated column, giving frequent speeches and media appearances, and campaigning for Republican candidates nationwide. Together with his son Jimmy, Kemp formed Kemp Partners, a strategic consulting firm, in 2002.

Jack Kemp died on May 2, 2009, leaving his wife Joanne, four children (Jeffrey Kemp, Jennifer Andrews, Judith Nolan and James Kemp) and 17 grandchildren.

President Obama posthumously awarded Jack Kemp the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August, 2009.

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