A bipartisan chorus of mourners led by President Obama on Sunday celebrated the accomplishments and enthusiasms of Jack Kemp, a pro football star turned politician who led the charge in Congress for the package of tax cuts that became known as Reaganomics and urged Republicans to embrace minority voters.
Kemp, 73, died Saturday of cancer at his home in the suburbs of the nation's capital.
Friends and admirers described Kemp as an infectious optimist whose belief in the power of lower taxes to jump-start the economy was matched only by his commitment to civil rights.
"Jack Kemp was a man who could fiercely advocate for his own beliefs and principles while also remembering the lessons he learned years earlier on the football field: that bitter divisiveness between race and class and station only stood in the way of the 'common aim of a team to win,' " Obama said in a statement released by the White House.
Republican strategist Ed Rollins said Kemp's years in professional football were key to his attitude: "He used to say, 'I've showered with more African Americans than most people meet in a lifetime.' "
After a decade during the 1970s when the GOP targeted white voters, "Kemp more than anyone made the case for a non-racist conservatism," said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Kemp represented the Buffalo area for 18 years in Congress before joining former president George H.W. Bush's Cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Kemp was the Republican Party's 1996 vice presidential nominee in an election that he and Bob Dole lost to then-president Bill Clinton and vice president Al Gore.
Before entering politics, Kemp quarterbacked the Buffalo Bills to two American Football League championships, in 1964 and 1965. The AFL later joined the National Football League.
Like Ronald Reagan, Kemp had a knack for connecting with blue-collar voters. "He created a whole generation of Jack Kemp Republicans," said Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation.
One of them was Ed Rutkowski, a Bills wide receiver who said his quarterback liked to talk politics when the two drove to practice. "I used to tell him, 'I'm an old Democrat from the Pennsylvania coal fields. I never knew what a Republican was until I met you,' " recalled Rutkowski. He later became Kemp's first congressional administrative assistant.
In 1981, Kemp co-authored a sweeping bill of tax cuts that became the centerpiece of then-president Reagan's domestic agenda. As a lawmaker and later as HUD secretary, he championed financial assistance for first-time home buyers and urban enterprise zones to revitalize the nation's city centers by offering tax breaks and other incentives to attract business. Today, the federal government funds enterprise zones in nearly 50 communities. Many states have also adopted the concept.
"Jack Kemp's impact is enduring to this very day," said New York University professor Mitchell Moss. "He did more to shape urban policy in the 1990s than any other member of Congress."
The father of four children — two of whom, Jeffrey and James, followed him into professional football — and the grandfather of 17, Kemp was "a role model" for taking time out for family, said former representative Tom Reynolds.
ESPN commentator Paul Maguire, another former Kemp teammate, agreed that his friend's greatest achievements came out of the public eye. "He did all the things he wanted to do," Maguire said, "and still had time for family."