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Quiet, but by No Means Silent

Joanne Kemp is a private person who's not as media savvy as other political wives. But don't let this devout Presbyterian and anchor of a close-knit family fool you. Still waters run deep.

August 19, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You could almost see the question marks hovering over Joanne Kemp as she wondered just how many (and what kind of) embraces to publicly bestow on her husband, Jack, after his speech at the Republican convention--and then, which way to exit the stage.

Her little minuet of uncertainty was refreshingly real--which is one way Kemp is described by those who know her.

Unlike her mediagenic co-campaigner, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Kemp has never occupied the spotlight, either in a career of her own or as a public helpmate to her husband.

She has preferred to remain a private person, serving as what has often been called "the anchor" or "the glue" in their large, close-knit family.

Nor has she mastered the art of making the camera her friend. At the two wives' first public appearance together without their spouses--a playground dedication in San Diego on Aug. 12--Kemp surprised the press corps by inadvertently keeping her back to photographers during almost the entire event, leaving the effervescent Dole to mug solo.

Such unheard-of self-effacement was immediately reported in the media, and Kemp was soon seen in the grip of heavy-hitting "handler" Torrie Clarke, once George Bush's campaign press secretary, who managed to sequester her not only from journalists but also from some friends.

"She just doesn't have the time," Clarke says, turning down interview requests Thursday and Friday. "She would rather spend the time with her children than with you."

Kemp's close friend Elayne Bennett was amazed by aides' refusal to let her chat with Kemp for just a few seconds when their paths accidentally crossed one afternoon in San Diego.

"I had something quick I really wanted to tell her, but that woman wouldn't let me do it," Bennett says.

But it is doubtful that Kemp, 60, will be rattled by any of the chaos sure to surround her in coming weeks. She is slow to anger, friends say, and maintains her composure and civility even when those around her are losing theirs.

A devout Presbyterian who has led Friday morning religious study groups for Capitol Hill wives in her home for 15 years, she is seen as a role model and trusted confidante by her friends.

"I have never heard her say anything negative about anyone," says Mary Bunning, wife of Rep. Jim Bunning, (R-Kentucky).

"Her faith sustains her, and those around her," says Bennett, wife of former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who co-directs the Washington think tank Empower America with candidate Kemp. The two couples have been "very, very close for years," Bennett says.

Joanne Kemp has weathered many odd zigs and zags in her husband's career during their 38-year marriage.

A week before the just-ended Republican national convention in San Diego, for example, Joanne (the family's scheduler), phoned her husband's brother, Tom, at his Laguna Beach home. She asked if they could stay with him in Laguna, because "Jack doesn't really think there's a place for him at the convention."

Just a few days later, there would be important places for them both.

*

The Kemps are a California couple. Joanne Main was born and raised in Fillmore, 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where her father was superintendent of the schools. She studied education at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, where she attracted the eye of campus jock Jack.

He was born and raised in Los Angeles, graduated from Fairfax High School, and majored in physical education at Occidental.

The two married in 1958 right after her graduation. Within two years they had the first of their four children: Jeffrey, Jennifer, Judith and James. The Kemps now have 11 grandchildren.

Joanne's mother, who still lives in Fillmore, told The Times last week that her daughter worked a short time as a teacher but gave that up to be a full-time homemaker.

"She was glad to get married," says Lois Main, 83.

But the life Kemp endured as a football player's wife was not particularly stable. Her husband was drafted by the Detroit Lions but did not make the team. He bounced from one professional team to another for a while, then served for a year in the Army reserves, then tried the Canadian Football League, and finally started his move to stardom with the Los Angeles (and then San Diego) Chargers in 1960.

After the '62 season, the Kemps moved to Buffalo, where he led the Buffalo Bills to two league championships and began to get involved in politics. During all these years, Joanne ran their home, raised their children and led Bible study classes for the football players' wives.

She did the same for the next eight years, as a congressional wife, after her husband was elected to represent a Buffalo suburb.

And in 1988, she and the children fanned out around the country, stumping for Jack Kemp in his short-lived try for the Republican presidential nomination.

*

Joanne Kemp has never generated much press because she prefers to let her husband do the talking, she says.

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