CAMPAIGN ’88 On the leaf-strewn campus of the University of New Hampshire, 58 km northeast of Manchester, a drizzle was dampening the blaze of autumn foliage to sombre shades of brown. And inside the red-brick student union, a huddle of visiting political aides looked equally glum: the rain was forcing them to cancel their game plan—an afternoon of much-needed mainstreeting. But up on the stage of the packed auditorium, their boss, 52-year-old Republican Representative Jack French Kemp—the football hero-turnednine-term Buffalo, N.Y., congressman —took to the podium, to brandish his relentless brand of positive thinking.
His five Republican rivals were worrying about how last month’s stock market crash had shaken their presidential hopes.
But Kemp, the candidate whom analysts predicted it might hurt the most, welcomed the plunge as a chance to focus the spotlight on his favorite issue-economics. On Wall Street, analysts were talking of apocalypse, blaming the crash on Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics, but the conservative congressman who had helped draft that program continued to lead the cheers for the tarnished theories that even the President had been forced to abandon. Recasting the market’s plunge not as a disaster but a challenge, Kemp sounded like the quarterback he once was, rallying his flagging team in the locker room at half time. “These are exciting times to be alive,” he proclaimed.
But in recent months, Kemp has needed to apply that same dogged optimism to an unlikely cause: his own faltering bid for the White House. Already $1.82 million in debt and stagnating in the polls—lagging a distant third behind Vice-President George Bush and Senator Robert Dole—he has been forced to shrug off predictions that his campaign is moribund. “Discouraged? Why should I be discouraged?” he asked during an interview with Maclean ’s aboard a chartered jet. “You can’t judge the campaign when the games haven’t even started.”
For Kemp, the notion that he might not ultimately win is as alien as an overdose of introspective thinking. He has spent his entire career as an underdog battling overwhelming odds. He was born the third of four competitive sons to a man who started an 11-truck Los Angeles delivery service with a single motorcycle. And he had neither an ex-
ceptional physique nor the outstanding natural gifts to become the professional football great he had dreamed of becoming since age 6. But, said his older brother Tom, a former chairman of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce who now works full-time on the Kemp-forpresident campaign, their mother, a college graduate, “was the pusher. She would be the one who exhorted us to think big, aim high.” Kemp was turned down or dropped by five professional teams, including the Calgary Stampeders, before a final humiliation: he was sent to the Buffalo Bills for the ignominious waiver price of $100. But it was after that blow that he finally led the team to the 1964 and 1965 American Football League championships and earned himself the most-valuable-player title.
Former teammate Harry Jacobs, once the Bills’ linebacker, remembers one game against the Houston Oilers when 48,000 fans in Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium stood up and booed Kemp. “Then, on the very first play, Jack went
back and threw a touchdown, and those same 48,000 fans stood up and cheered him,” said Jacobs. “It was that sort of determination that showed his leadership.”
In politics, Kemp exhibited the same grit. When he arrived on Capitol Hill in 1971, critics made fun of the economic enthusiasms he had picked up while
avidly plunging into supply-side texts during the off-season. But he fastened on those notions with the single-mindedness that he brought to football. A decade later he saw his supply-side theories enshrined as the centrepiece of Reagan’s presidency. Indeed, when reporters now speculate on the possible failure of his own presidential dream, Kemp tells the story of his first campaign in a working-class district of Buffalo. When a local sportscaster asked what he would do if he lost, he replied: “I’m a quarterback. And quarterbacks don’t go into games thinking they’re going to lose.”
Now, his aides point to Jimmy Carter’s similar low standing at the same point in 1975. In fact, a poll after last month’s televised Republican debate in Houston showed that the improvement in Kemp’s popularity rating was second only to that of television evangelist Marion (Pat) Robertson. But many major corporate donors have recoiled from Kemp’s populist ideas, which aim to bring blacks, Hispanics and labor into a
broadened Republican party. And hardline conservatives have not accepted his claims to be the true heir to Reagan.
But Kemp says that he is undeterred. During his university speech, a steady stream of students had filtered out of the auditorium—most protesting his praise for Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, popularly dubbed Star Wars. But onstage, jabbing the air with the curved middle finger of his right handset years ago after an injury so he would still be able to hold a football—the candidate who calls himself a heavily
armed dove relished the confrontation. On the sidelines, his 22-year-old daughter, Judith, a pretty blonde working for his New Hampshire campaign, recognized the glint in his eye. She had seen it often back home in Bethesda, Md., a Washington suburb, around the family dinner table. Only months earlier—as a political science major—she too had argued against her father’s stand on Star Wars, as well as his opposition to abortion and his championship of the Nicaraguan contra rebels. But he had kept on hammering his points at her—even taking her and her 24-year-old sister, Jennifer, with him to visit contra camps in Honduras last September—until he won her over. “He lets you make up your own mind,” she said. “But he’s so convinced he’s right that he just keeps at you until you see things his way.”
That fighting spirit has been instilled in the whole Kemp family. Even his beautiful wife, Joanne, his college sweetheart and a onetime cheerleader, challenges him on the tennis court. Kemp used to hate losing so much that
he would come home with his racket smashed. And when Jennifer wanted a car, he said she could have one only if she beat him on the tennis court. Only after she beat him twice did she find a silver Honda sitting in the driveway with a note: “You win.”
All four Kemp children were sent out on dates with their father’s parting words: “Be a leader.” Said Jennifer: “He meant that you may not always be popular, but you have to stand up for what you believe.” She says that he applies the same philosophy to his campaign.
She remembers seeing him discouraged only when watching his two sons play football. Once, when the elder son, Jeff—now 27 and a quarterback with the Seattle Seahawks—was leading his Dartmouth College team, his agitated father could not resist strolling down to the sidelines to issue a hint: “Throw short passes.” The candidate now laughs at the joke on himself. “Jeff leaned over and in front of the whole stands, including Teddy Kennedy, who was there on the Harvard side, said, ‘Dad, get outta here.’ ”
Kemp is the only presidential candidate who takes every Friday night off to watch football—specifically, his 16-yearold son, Jimmy, quarterback for a Maryland high-school team. In fact, football, politics and family life are the three lodestars around which his life turns. His four children are stunned that political analysts fault him for coldness. Among the New Hampshire university crowd, he is constantly grabbing his daughters’ hands, and Judith remembers him in tears over a poem she had written
for him. Still, like his aides, his children criticize him for peppering an audience with his ideas in a rapid-fire staccato, tossing out arcane academic quotations and three-dollar words from his voracious reading. One longtime observer put it down to the overcompensation of a jock with a long-standing sense of intellectual inferiority. “Sometimes,” said Jennifer, “I just have to say, ‘Dad, if I can’t understand that word, how would your average voter?’ ”
Still, unless there is a recession— which even the optimistic Kemp con-
cedes would hurt him—he says that he is convinced that the average American voter can best identify with his radical free-market, family-oriented vision. On his campaign plane, he kicks off his shoes and philosophizes that “even if I lose the race, I can still be a winner. Most of the themes that all the campaigns are now talking about are things I’ve been talking about since the 1970s.” But having encouraged others to run for his congressional seat, he admits that he does not know what he would do if he lost. And those who know him say they do not believe that he could stay out of the political game. Indeed, even coming out of a campus fraternity house in his immaculate blue suit, he still cannot resist another siren song: the lure of a pigskin being tossed on the front lawn in the rain. “Gimme that football!” he barked with glee. And deftly fingering it, Kemp aimed a perfect pass straight up toward the most ominous cloud formation glowering over him.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.