SAN DIEGO — As a kid in school, Jack Kemp read thick history and philosophy books when others his age were reading comic books. Yet his intense interest in learning seldom resulted in good grades.
As a member of Congress representing suburban Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1970s and 1980s, Kemp sowed the first seeds of what would become the 1994 "Republican revolution." But he left it to Newt Gingrich and other GOP upstarts to bring his vision to fruition.
And when he took control of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bush, Kemp proved a tireless advocate for housing renewal. But the results of his efforts to convert ideas into bricks-and-mortar improvements for real people were less than spectacular.
Repeatedly during his 61 years--from his childhood in Los Angeles to his days as a pro football quarterback and, later, throughout his spectacular rise in politics--the GOP vice presidential nominee has been known as a big thinker. He has distinguished himself by his zealous, almost evangelical, advocacy of innovative ideas--the more complex, the better.
At the same time, virtually everyone who has ever known Kemp says he is usually too impatient, too undisciplined to put his ideas to work.
Perhaps it is just a coincidence that his personal style can be summed up by a sports analogy. In life, as in football, Kemp often has shown a preference for turning to a passing attack when it might have been wiser to grind out the yardage on the ground.
Kemp's nomination satisfies his long-held, burning desire for a national platform--a goal he set for himself a quarter-century ago when he left behind the cheering Buffalo Bills fans and set out to win plaudits on the field of politics.
But even as Republicans applaud the glamour he brings to the GOP ticket, admirers and critics alike quietly ask whether the signal-caller who liked to pass would function effectively as vice president, a job that offers little more than short yardage.
A friend, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), sees Kemp's ideological fervor as complementing presidential nominee Bob Dole's natural pragmatism and instinct for compromise. "I think they'll have a real exchange of ideas," she said. "I didn't want Bob Dole to choose a look-alike."
Other Kemp watchers are not so charitable.
"I always found him very willing to listen and very hard to persuade," said Cushing N. Dolbeare, an advocate for low-income housing who met frequently with Kemp at HUD. "He's very enthusiastic about things. And the more you argue with him, the more enthusiastic he gets."
A YOUTHFUL LESSON: Competing With the Big Guys
A black-and-white photograph shows a 300-pound defensive lineman bearing down on the quarterback, who seems destined to be ground into the muddy field. For years Kemp displayed this picture on the wall next to his desk.
Kemp, the quarterback in that American Football League championship game in 1963, not only avoided obliteration but unleashed a bomb--which turned into a touchdown.
"It simply says that a little guy can compete against a big guy if you've got elan vital, if you've got the spirit, if you've got some spunk," Kemp said. "That's my philosophy."
This notion melds the lessons of both his football career and his Los Angeles youth. It is a philosophy that was instilled in Kemp in his family's Spanish-style bungalow on North Plymouth Boulevard one block south of Clinton Street, and later, in a two-story home on Ridgewood Place, both just east of Larchmont Village.
Born on July 13, 1935, Jack French Kemp was the third of four sons of Paul R. Kemp, the owner of a small trucking company in downtown Los Angeles, and Frances Pope Kemp, a social worker. His parents were Republicans.
At the dinner table, Frances Kemp insisted her sons grapple with important issues. "It was," said Kemp's younger brother, Dick, "a family where ideas mattered, and concepts were important."
"We were always very argumentative, very contentious, not in a nasty way, but in trying to learn from each other," said Tom Kemp, an older brother. "With Dad, it was unconditional love. With Mother, it was the intellectual challenge and expecting her boys to do great things."
From their father, they learned about people. The four Kemp boys were often at their father's side, driving trucks or loading them on the gritty docks. Quickly, they learned about hard work and racial tolerance.
"My father's company was small--only about six drivers--but one or two were black, and we drove together with them," Tom Kemp said. "They were our friends. I think that experience, along with football--in football, Jack as the quarterback was dependent upon his teammates--made Jack see that a true economic program has to be one of the good shepherd lifting up everyone and leaving no one behind."
Jack Kemp was a member of the 1953 Fairfax High School graduating class, a group that included musician Herb Alpert, Dodger pitcher Larry Sherry and Los Angeles radio announcer Don Elliott.