WASHINGTON -- Jack Kemp, a former NFL quarterback, U.S. congressman, one-time vice-presidential nominee and self-described "bleeding-heart conservative," died Saturday. He was 73.
Kemp died after a lengthy illness, according to spokeswoman Bona Park and Edwin J. Feulner, a longtime friend and former campaign adviser. Park said Kemp died at his home in Bethesda, Md., in the Washington suburbs.
Kemp's office announced in January that he had been diagnosed with an unspecificed type of cancer. By then, however, the cancer was in an advanced stage and had spread to several organs, Feulner said. He didn't know the origin of the cancer.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Kemp "one of the nation's most distinguished public servants. Jack was a powerful voice in American politics for more than four decades."
Former President George W. Bush expressed his sorrow after hearing of Kemp's death.
"Laura and I are saddened by the death of Jack Kemp," he said. "Jack will be remembered for his significant contributions to the Reagan revolution and his steadfast dedication to conservative principles during his long and distinguished career in public service. Jack's wife, Joanne, and the rest of the Kemp family are in our thoughts and prayers."
Family spokeswoman Marci Robinson said Kemp died shortly after 6 p.m. and was surrounded by his family.
"During the treatment of his cancer, Jack expressed his gratitude for the thoughts and prayers of so many friends, a gratitude which the Kemp family shares," according to a family statement.
Kemp, a former quarterback who mostly played for the Buffalo Bills, represented western New York for nine terms in Congress, leaving the House for an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988. Eight years later, after serving a term as President George H.W. Bush's housing secretary, Kemp made it onto the national ticket as Bob Dole's running mate.
With that loss, the Republican bowed out of political office but not out of politics. In speaking engagements and a syndicated column, Kemp continued to advocate for the tax reform and supply-side policies -- the idea that the more taxes are cut, the more the economy will grow -- that he pioneered.
Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, a Kemp family friend and his former campaign deputy chief of staff, said Kemp's legacy will be his compassion.
"The idea that all conservatives really should regroup around and identify with is that this is not an exclusive club," Feulner said. "Freedom is for everyody. That's what Jack Kemp really stood for."
Kemp's rapid and wordy style made the enthusiastic speaker with the neatly side-parted white hair a favorite on the lecture circuit -- and a millionaire. However, his style didn't win over everyone. In his memoirs, former Vice President Dan Quayle wrote that at Cabinet meetings, Bush would be irked by Kemp's habit of going off on tangents and not making "any discernible point."
Kemp also signed on with numerous educational and corporate boards and charitable organizations, including NFL Charities, which kept him connected to his football roots.
Kemp was a 17th-round pick by the Detroit Lions in the 1957 draft, but he was cut before the season began. After being released by three more NFL teams and the Canadian Football League over the next three years, Kemp joined the American Football League's Los Angeles Chargers as a free agent in 1960. A waivers foul-up two years later landed him with the Bills, who received him at the bargain-basement price of $100.
The Bills issued a statement regarding Kemp's passing:
"We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Jack Kemp. Jack remains a legendary figure in our team's history, having led our 1964 and '65 teams to the American Football League Championship titles. His many outstanding unique qualities made him the exemplary role model of leadership for our team and later for our country.
"While today's news brings us much sadness, we cherish the many fond memories of Jack the loving husband and father, Jack the quarterback and Jack the congressman and we celebrate his life well lived. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Joanne and their entire family."
Along with leading the Bills to the 1964 and 1965 AFL championships, Kemp won the league's MVP award in 1965. He co-founded the AFL Players Association in 1964 and was elected president of the union for five terms. When he retired from football in 1969, Kemp had enough support in blue-collar Buffalo and its suburbs to win an open congressional seat.
Kemp told a gathering during a return trip in 2007 that he still tried to catch as many Bills games as possible, but mostly on television. Efforts to be in the stands were reserved for family.
"I've got 17 grandchildren, 10 of whom play football, so I spend my weekends flying around the country going to football games," Kemp said.
In 11 seasons in professional football, Kemp sustained a dozen concussions, two broken ankles and a crushed hand -- which he insisted a doctor permanently set in a passing position so that he could continue to play.
"Pro football gave me a good perspective," Kemp was quoted as saying. "When I entered the political arena, I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, "Kemp was an extraordinary American leader who became a trusted colleague and exceptional friend to countless NFL owners, team personnel and commissioners after his MVP playing career with the Buffalo Bills."
Kemp's longtime football colleague, guard Billy Shaw, said his friend was extremely smart.
"Jack was probably one of the most intelligent men that I've ever been around, and I'm not just talking football," said Shaw, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. "He was one of those kind of people that drew you to him because of his ability to communicate and the intelligence that was there.
"He was the kind of politician he was because he wrapped his arms around the people in Buffalo and represented them so well."
Kemp was born in California to Christian Scientist parents. He worked on the loading docks of his father's trucking company as a boy before majoring in physical education at Occidental College, where he led the nation's small colleges in passing.
Kemp became a Presbyterian after marrying his college sweetheart, Joanne Main. The couple had four children, including two sons who played professional football -- Jeff Kemp in the NFL with four teams and Jimmy Kemp in the CFL. Jack Kemp joined with a son and son-in-law to form a Washington strategic consulting firm, Kemp Partners, after leaving office.
Through his political life, Kemp's positions spanned the social spectrum: He opposed abortion and supported school prayer, yet he appealed to liberals with his outreach toward minorities and compassion for the poor. He pushed for immigration reform to include a guest-worker program and status for the illegal immigrants already here.
At the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, Kemp proposed more than 50 programs to combat urban blight and homelessness and was an early and strong advocate of enterprise zones.
In 1993, along with former Education Secretary William Bennett and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Kemp co-founded Empower America, a public policy organization intended to promote economic growth, job creation and entrepreneurship.
Kemp's choice as Dole's 1996 running mate was seen as a way for the Republican Party to reach groups of voters that Dole could not. And it came even after Kemp endorsed Steve Forbes for the nomination -- a move many considered political suicide -- and declared himself a "recovering politician."
Dole's more sober demeanor contrasted sharply by Kemp's high-spiritedness, which was recalled in various accounts, including one by Marlin Fitzwater, Bush's press secretary.
Fitzwater wrote in his memoirs about a time when Kemp lunged at Secretary of State James Baker III in the Oval Office. The housing secretary was "nagging, nagging, nagging" Bush to recognize the breakaway Soviet satellite of Lithuania, and Baker, the color rising in his face, screamed an epithet at Kemp, Fitzwater recalled. Kemp bounded across the furniture and grabbed at Baker's throat. They were pulled apart to avoid a fistfight.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press