The strobes of cameramen spill hot light on the new Congressman moving through the crush and triumph of Election Night, through the dance of placards that bear his name, through the whirl of red, white and blue boaters. Jack F. Kemp, until last January the All-Star quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, has just been elected to the House of Representatives from New York's 39th District. He edges through the crowd to a telephone; the White House is calling to offer congratulations. "Do you think tomorrow morning's headlines will read JFK VICTORIOUS?" someone asks.
The Republican Party has high hopes for Jack Kemp. He is a Congressman made to Richard Nixon's order—a Californian, a conservative and a football player to boot. During Kemp's congressional campaign. White House emissaries Robert Finch and Herb Klein appeared frequently in Buffalo, privately to advise and publicly to applaud their man. "The President considers Jack Kemp...a rising national figure," Klein declared. Envelopes with labels reading "From the White House" lay about Kemp headquarters. Cartoonist Al Capp, serving this year as a Republican court jester, entertained without charge at a $100-a-plate affair for Kemp. The White House arranged for Kemp to be coached by professionals. A campaign management consultant arrived from Washington, followed by a press secretary. An advertising firm set about molding Kemp's image. The company that compiles voter surveys for party bigwigs like Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan produced volumes of computerized information on Kemp's constituency, confidential playbooks from which campaign strategy was developed. Jack Kemp, embarking on his new career, was a No. 1 draft choice, a bonus baby.
Kemp's announcement last March that he would run for Congress provoked jokes. "Did you hear Jackie threw his hat in the ring—and had it intercepted?" But from the outset the campaign was plotted in deadly earnest. Nobody was relying on Kemp's celebrity as a sports figure or his All-America virtues to make him a winner.
There was no fundamental image problem. Buffalo's ex-quarterback is utterly wholesome, resembling no one so much as the man in those posters that declare, "The family that prays together stays together." The simile is valid. Kemp is a practicing Presbyterian and his wife Joanne holds Bible study class in their home on Tuesdays. The Kemps consider themselves Middle Americans and it was decided Jack would run a Middle America campaign right there on the Canadian border. Red, white and blue were his colors. "People want candidates who will stand up and say what is right about America," Kemp declared early on, and in almost every speech thereafter he praised the American political system as "the greatest experience in human dignity and human freedom that mankind has ever known." He chose to be uplifting and optimistic.
But the most significant of Kemp's assets, of course, was his name, popularized in 13 years of pro football. A pre-election survey showed 76% of the voters in the 39th District knew who he was, while only 23% recognized and could identify his opponent, Thomas Flaherty, a Buffalo attorney who had served for 20 years in local government. Flaherty was quick to concede Kemp's advantage. "When I began my campaign," he said, "I would tell people, 'I'm Tom Flaherty. I'm running for Congress.' I drew blank stares. So I started saying, 'I'm running for Congress against Jack Kemp,' and people would light up immediately." But Flaherty also figured that Kemp's sporting past might hurt Kemp, for the public often looks upon football players as intellectually deficient. And might the fans who had so vigorously booed Kemp in War Memorial Stadium not transfer their disdain to his political career?
Football had surely honed Kemp in subtle, anti-political ways. As a sports hero he developed an aloofness, pushing through crowds mindlessly to limit the attentions of autograph-seekers. "He gives the impression of not wanting to press flesh," his publicity chief, Ken Blasczyk, said. And Kemp's campaign manager, Alex Armendaris, declared, "If another athlete asked me to help him run for office, I'd think twice before agreeing. Sports idols are another breed. A politician has to beg, to crawl for votes."
Kemp's advisers had other concerns, too. "Quarterbacks are lazy," one noted on a particularly strained day. "Jack would rather sit in the office than campaign." And another, the "creative director" of the campaign, Al Schutte, worried that Kemp was too handsome. "He looks too kiddish, too pretty," said Schutte. "We have to unslick him, give a little character to his face."
Kemp needed no speech tutor. He talks surely and swiftly, too swiftly to follow in some instances, but Armendaris said that was "just as well. His answers get too long, he gets in trouble, makes mistakes and forgets the question." A good sense of tempo and cadence masked Kemp's rhetorical deficiencies.
Kemp is inexorably Republican, so no tampering with his attitudes was suggested. "I was born into a Republican family," he would say when asked about his fundamental political philosophy, "and after going into the highly competitive business of pro football, I gained an even deeper appreciation of the competitive free-enterprise system to which this country owes its past, present and future progress and freedom. I believe competition breeds the best, not exactly by the law of the jungle, but the system of free enterprise has brought about the greatest society ever known. I think the Republican Party best preserves and promotes those basic principles of free enterprise."
Kemp's ideals had led him to the fringes of political involvement for years. While playing for the Chargers, first of Los Angeles and then of San Diego, he became a close friend of The San Diego Union's then editor, Herb Klein. In 1961 he began writing a youth column for the rigidly conservative newspaper, and his stories had headlines such as, "Sports, Freedom Require Laws" and "Freedom Is Goal in Playing 'Game.'" In 1962, through a front-office gaffe, Kemp was put on waivers and picked up by the Buffalo Bills for $100. He went East reluctantly, and kept returning to California in the off season. He campaigned for Richard Nixon in his unsuccessful 1962 bid for the state governorship and in 1964 he actively supported Barry Goldwater for the presidency. If he did not back winners, he was one himself, leading Buffalo to the 1964 and 1965 AFL championships and becoming a popular figure in Buffalo community affairs. He gave scores of speeches—"The Struggle of Communism for Control of the Minds of our Youth"—and was honored by the Buffalo Jaycees for outstanding community service and by the Western New York Young Americans for Freedom, who gave him their Americanism Award.