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Jack Kemp. R.i.p.

In Jack Kemp’s office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he served as secretary under George H.W. Bush, a larger-than-life photograph of Kemp, fading back to pass, adorned an entire wall. It was the most important thing to know about Kemp the politician, who died yesterday at age 73.

Kemp, a former congressman who ran for president in 1988 and for vice president in 1996 with Bob Dole, never quite had the deep abiding ambition that it takes to become president, and the reason had a lot to do with that photograph on his wall. When Kemp grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, he had one ambition in life--to be a pro football quarterback. And it wasn’t obvious that he was going to succeed.

Kemp was barely six feet tall--too short to see over on-rushing linemen. He wasn’t recruited by any big college programs, and ended up starring at Occidental, a small Southern California school better known for its political science than its touchdowns. He wanted to play in the pros, but he was drafted in the 17th round by the Detroit Lions and was cut before the season began. Kemp's friends advised him to quit but he persisted.

Finally, in 1960, when he was signed by the Los Angeles (later San Diego) Chargers of the fledgling American Football League, and given a chance to star, he made up in savvy and determination what he lacked in size. In 1962, as a result of a front-office slip-up, he was waived to the Buffalo Bills, whom he then led to two AFL championships. In 1965, Kemp was the league's most valuable player.  

As Kemp explained in 1992, when I spent several weeks with him on a profile I was doing, his success in football satisfied his deepest yearning. To use a fancy reference, it satisfied what Jean Paul Sartre described as a person’s “original project.” And while he remained highly competitive--he couldn’t stand to lose at tennis, and he wanted to succeed as a congressman and later as a presidential candidate and cabinet official--he didn’t pursue these careers as relentlessly. They were second acts--epilogues.

That’s also what made Kemp unusual as a politician. He had very little of the cut-throat, I’ll-do-anything-to-win quality that sometimes characterizes successful politicians. He was a Reagan Republican, but unlike Reagan, he did not cultivate the fa