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KEMP ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE

Welcome to the Jack Kemp Oral History Archive, an original collection of spoken recollections and reflections that illuminate Jack Kemp’s public life, his vocation, the ideas central to his commitment to public service, and the political world in which he moved.

 

In the space of four years, Mort Kondracke (lead interviewer) and Brien Williams (Kemp Oral History Project historian) interviewed over a hundred people who were central to Jack Kemp’s  life and career.  Our goal was to enable future generations to learn about the American democracy of our time directly from those entrusted with its governance.  Along the way, we gathered some fascinating insights about our country’s recent past, including Presidential politics, competition on the playing field and in the halls of Congress, and the power of ideas.

 

As Jack said time and again, “history matters.”  We hope that these wide-ranging personal experiences, judgments, and lessons learned will also serve as a resource for  carrying on the cause about which he cared so much:  the American Idea.

 

We are indebted to the support we received from the Conrad Hilton Foundation, the guidance provided by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and the generous contributions of the men and women listed below who graciously consented to be interviewed.

 

Michelle Van Cleave
Kemp Legacy Program Director

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Eddie Abramoski

“Jack was one of the first players to lift weights, and in them days it was taboo for a pitcher or a quarterback or anybody to lift weights, and Jack, as the guys attested, he could throw the ball through a brick wall. He could throw it eighty yards. He was fantastic.”

Richard Ahearn

“I said, ‘Politically you just can’t do this, Jack. You’re going to alienate every Republican voter in every border state there is, California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, everywhere illegal immigration is an issue.’ It got to the point where he threw me out of his suite, which he regularly did, but then the next day or a few hours later we’d talk it over and he’d laugh and I’d laugh, and we’d patch everything up.”

Jennifer (Kemp) Andrews

“I remember when he was sick, and he couldn’t speak… so he would have to whisper. And one of our kids had an assignment, a question about what role did the radio have in World War II? …So this child called up Grandpa and he whispered… and over the phone explained for about half an hour, Winston Churchill and his address to the British people. It really gave us chills. We put it on speakerphone, and it was really moving….”

Rick Azar

“Got a call from Dr. Bernstein and said, “How would you like to have lunch with Jack Kemp?” Dr. Bernstein was taking care of him. So he drags me out to Niagara Falls because they were at Niagara at training camp, and that’s how I met Jack Kemp. We became good friends, which at the time there was a whole metamorphosis in the sports business.”

James Baker

“I bent over backwards to make sure that everybody knew where my loyalties were. They were to Ronald Reagan. Now, if seeing Reagan succeed enhanced Bush’s opportunities, so much the better. He was vice president of that administration. But to say that somehow that we were doing in order to defeat the hopes of Jack Kemp for running for president, that’s crazy. I did everything I could to defeat Jack Kemp, and did defeat him, okay?”

Fred Barnes

“Well, he did have a dynamic personality, and it was overpowering in so many cases, but he also had something else. It wasn’t just that he had intellectual curiosity, which he did, but he had mastered the subject matter of economics, of tax cuts and all the ramifications of that… But he had mastered it, so he could answer all the questions."

Bruce Bartlett

“I remember distinctly him asking me if I was a supply-side fiscalist. That was the term that was being used in those days. I swear to God I’d never heard that term before in my life. But I didn’t have anything to lose, so I said, “Well, sure. Who isn’t?” or something like that. And I think that’s all he needed to hear, because he ran off, and then Randy and I went and had a couple of beers, and the next thing I know, I was hired.”

Jeff Bell

“I was working for Reagan in ’76, and I was out at the Kansas City convention where Ford defeated Reagan, and I remember seeing Jack and Jude together and they were trying to sell Reagan on the first version of the Kemp tax-cut bill. It wasn’t yet Kemp-Roth. It was just a 30 percent tax cut.”

Al Bemiller

“Jack was fairly quiet person, as far as I’m concerned. He was a very smart individual, and he knew that he wouldn’t let a screwed-up pass bother him, and that’s what kept him—he just kept going. He wouldn’t quit. Jack was a tough—the thing I remember about Jack the most is his toughness.”

Bill Bennett

“Jack would say that ownership itself will transform, and I said it can’t transform character. He said when a guy has never had anything, and he gets something, he has a chance then. I’d say he has a chance, but if the right values haven’t in some ways been inculcated in him, it could happen, but it’s miraculous. And why can’t we just agree that you give people opportunity, but you also need instruction, habits, Aristotle. He’d say fine, but you can’t wait. So this was the argument that went on and on with us.”

Wayne Berman

“So when he and I met in Russell, Kansas, and got the great Bob Dole introduction [imitating], ‘Jack, Berman’s going to run the campaign for ya.’ The look on Jack’s face was precious… Sort of like ‘This stranger, effectively, is going to run my campaign,’ and Jack had no ability to govern his body language or his facial language at all, and you could just tell his attitude was, ‘Oh, no he’s not’.”

Richard Billmire

“The way the Kemp office worked,…a lot of times there’d be, as I always used to joke, 832 people in the room, and at times you’d go, “Oh my God, how does anything ever get done?” And he would bring everybody in, he would. It was not well managed. But what happened is then, I’ve always thought, there were no secrets. …it was all wide-open.”