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Hot GOP Property : Jack Kemp Still Brings Crowds Alive

May 16, 1985|BELLA STUMBO | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As a candidate, most people agree, Rep. Jack F. Kemp, 49, (R-N.Y.) looks like something Hollywood might have dreamed up. He is handsome, articulate and poised, seemingly unaffected and sincere, more committed to principles than ambition. He has a winning way of leaning forward when he talks, and, if his point is especially important, of patting or poking his listener's arm for emphasis.

Kemp was leaning forward now, gaze direct, tone semi-confiding as he discussed his former inferiority complex.

That was back in the early days, when he first went to Congress, representing suburban Buffalo. He had felt, he said, like an intellectual lightweight, a banged-up, aging jock who would never fit in with the highbrows on Capitol Hill.

Football Image

At the time, 1970, his credentials for the job consisted of a 13-year career in professional football, most notably quarterbacking for the San Diego Chargers and, then, the Buffalo Bills--plus a major in physical education from Occidental College in Los Angeles, his hometown.

By then, most of the major bones in his body had been broken, crushed or fractured at least once--but he had not read many good books, and he had no defined opinions on most major issues.

"I was never actually ashamed of it--but I was always a little defensive, self-conscious about being a pro football player among 400 lawyers, some of them really, really articulate guys," he says. "I wondered, for a few years, if anybody would ever really take me seriously."

He is not wondering anymore.

Today, serving his eighth term in the House, Jack Kemp is one of the Republican Party's hottest properties, probably the only member of the House of Representatives--with the possible exception of Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr.--with national name recognition.

Called a Rebel Leader

To some, Kemp is the original "Mr. Supply Side." To others, he is rebel leader of a new breed of congressional Republicans who call themselves "populists" and openly disdain as "elitists" the established GOP leadership, represented by, among others, Vice President George Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas.

Kemp's office is flooded with speaking requests from throughout the nation, and wherever he goes, the scene is generally the same: Democrats seem impressed with his energy and style, if not his gospel. And he usually leaves Republican crowds enchanted, in standing ovation--and busily gossiping among themselves later about what a tough time Bush is going to have in 1988, wresting the GOP presidential nomination from such a dynamic, charismatic man.

Kemp is one of those persons whose face gives his mood away. When asked about his presidential ambitions, his eyes shine and, in the second or so before he can gather his expression into the pensive sobriety required, there is a flush of the boy, flattered, who wants to grin.

Then, in a tone of sincerest indecision, Kemp usually says:

"Well, I've considered it and will continue to, right through the '86 elections . . . then I'll make a firm decision. But, right now my agenda is so full, with tax reform and monetary reform and fiscal reform and other issues that are on the President's agenda, as well as mine. I would very much like to get this country back on the road to full employment without inflation, and help make my party a governing majority party . . . . "

Other times, though, Kemp's ego breaks through. Then he practically says that his candidacy, if not his election, is all but inevitable.

"I don't have the idea that I was born to be President of the United States, I don't lust after the office. But I've always been in leadership positions, or semi-leadership positions," he declared on one occasion. "And the fact that I am, as a member of the House, even being considered gives me a sense that some of the things I've been talking about have captured the imagination of, if not the public, at least my party.

"And the very fact that I am here , at this moment in history, gives me--I don't want to say a sense of inevitability . . . but I do think it would be wise for me to pursue it to the logical conclusion . . . so it may be that I will decide to run."

On another occasion, Kemp told a group of Harvard students, in effect, that it was proof of America's greatness, that he, a mere football player with a degree in PE from Oxy could be elected to Congress and "change the course of history."

"I was only joking," he said later, embarrassed.

He was not, of course.

Welcome to Campaign '88.

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