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GOP CONVENTION '96

Dual-Edged Kemp Persona May Put Stamp on Ticket

Politics: Veteran of Congress is an idea man who could strengthen Bob Dole's campaign. But his inclination to shoot from the lip could be a setback.

August 11, 1996|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — This is the Jack Kemp that Bob Dole's campaign would present to the nation: A professional football quarterback. A veteran member of Congress. A member of George Bush's Cabinet. Energetic. An idea man. And, of course, a dedicated conservative.

And this is the Jack Kemp that the campaign would rather not present itself: A one-note politician skipping off on a pet idea that the nation's monetary system must return to the gold standard and often finding himself crosswise with conventional conservative thinking. An unmanageable campaigner unresponsive to direction from his advisors, in this case strategists at his own campaign headquarters. Energetic--but with the unfocused, yipping-yapping energy of a puppy dog. An idea man--but one unable to restrain his natural inclination to shoot from the lip.

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The first could bring a sense of vision and leadership to the Republican ticket. The second would undermine its daily effort to present a coordinated assault on a disciplined White House working to secure President Clinton's reelection.

Both have presented themselves in the past. Either Kemp could emerge during the intense 12-week campaign leading up to election day.

Kemp, whom Dole officially anointed Saturday as his choice for the Republican vice presidential nomination, brings to the ticket a troubled history as campaigner and as team player.

Two scenes tell the story:

Knowing both Kemps, it was not without some trepidation that Bush contemplated naming the former quarterback and congressional veteran from Buffalo, N.Y., as secretary of Housing and Urban Development eight years ago. He wanted the former. Would he be getting the latter?

As he was forming his new administration, Bush asked Kemp whether he could keep his focus strictly on housing issues, and his feet on the limited field set for him by the White House.

It was an awkward question for a president-elect to pose, but Bush felt compelled to do so.

Bush had been vice president in 1985 when he watched Kemp lead an insurrection among House conservatives that persuaded President Reagan to renounce a deficit-reduction package that Dole had laboriously steered through the Senate with Bush's assistance.

In an interview for the book "Storming the Gates," Kemp said last year: "I didn't feel like I was torpedoing the budget. I thought I was torpedoing, if you want to call it, or blow it up if you will, a very, very bad deal." Whichever, it underscored how difficult Kemp is to control.

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So it was only after he won Kemp's postelection assurances that Bush went ahead with the housing nomination.

Fast forward a year and a half:

Forbidden by Secretary of State James A. Baker III from meeting with a controversial Israeli politician and former general at the Housing and Urban Development Department offices, Kemp travels across Washington to meet with the visitor, Ariel Sharon, at the Israeli Embassy. At the time, Baker and Bush are furious with Sharon, then his country's housing minister, for pressing ahead with the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. And they couldn't be more furious with Kemp.

And here is Kemp, at his place well down from the action at the polished oval table in the White House Cabinet Room. The housing secretary is criticizing Baker and the administration's conduct of foreign policy, according to former White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater in his book, "Call the Briefing."

In a scene more befitting a locker room, Baker shouts out an obscenity, Kemp leaps over furniture as he pursues him down a corridor outside the Oval Office, and national security advisor Brent Scowcroft has to separate them.

Jack French Kemp, who marked his 61st birthday on July 13, is well acquainted with locker rooms, as well as with verbal fisticuffs.

A Los Angeles native, he attended Fairfax High School; his father owned a small trucking company on Central Avenue. He played football at Occidental College, from which he was graduated in 1957. As a professional quarterback, he was cut by six teams over the next three years. In 1960, he joined the Los Angeles (later to be San Diego) Chargers and, two years later, the Buffalo Bills, whom he led to two American Football League titles.

He remains passionate about the game and attends every Super Bowl. But his dedication--at a time when his first Charger salary was $11,500--was such that when he broke a finger of his passing hand on a defender's helmet, he had it set bent, in a sideline procedure, to fit the shape of a football.

And still he presents--in a now-gray model--the neatly long, cross-the-forehead locks of a player ready for postgame, post-shower interviews. And his athletic build gives little away to the post-player years.

During his football years, he spent time in the Army in 1958; was a special assistant to then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967; and was a special assistant to the chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1969. He retired from football in 1970.

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