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Commentary: Jack Kemp, quarterback of GOP ideas

  • Story Highlights
  • Ed Rollins: Jack Kemp helped guide Republican Party in 1980s and 1990s
  • He says Kemp was a strong source of ideas the party put to use
  • Rollins: Kemp believed in a GOP "big tent" and encouraged minority participation
By Ed Rollins
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, was political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Ed Rollins says Jack Kemp's intellect and force of personality helped guide the Republican party.

Ed Rollins says Jack Kemp's intellect and force of personality helped guide the Republican party.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The world of politics has many players but few giants. One of the giants left the stage last week.

I was privileged to have had Jack Kemp as a friend. Our friendship was not unique, because Jack Kemp had thousands and maybe tens of thousands of people who thought of themselves as his friend.

He gave his friendship willingly and with a spirit of generosity. Those of us who knew him are saddened by his passing and the political world is a whole lot emptier because he's gone.

When Jack entered a room he filled it with an energy and fervor and his presence was felt big-time. Every conversation with him became a debate, even if you agreed with him on an issue. Jack Kemp had no casual thoughts.

I knew Jack for nearly 40 years. He was one of my early heroes. To this day I think of myself as a Reagan-Kemp Republican.

We both were Californians who came out of blue-collar working-class roots. His father was a truck driver, my father a shipyard worker. We both wanted to remake the Republican Party into a party for working people where hard work was rewarded and opportunities were offered to every man and woman regardless of background, color, religion or beliefs.

Jack went from a 13-year all-star career as the starting quarterback with the Buffalo Bills straight to Congress. He was first elected in 1970 and over the next four decades he was one of the most influential and popular men in the Republican Party.

He was a true intellectual, a vociferous reader and was a warrior for his ideas. He took the intensity that made him the AFL's most valuable player directly to the halls of Congress without missing a beat.

In his 18 years in Congress he was a leader of the new breed of conservatives. After he ran for president in 1988, he was appointed the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by President George H.W. Bush. In 1996, he was the Republican vice presidential nominee running with Sen. Bob Dole's presidential effort .

Along the way he was an extraordinary husband for 50 years to his wonderful Joanne and a remarkable father to his two sons, Jeff and Jimmy, and his two daughters, Jennifer and Judith, who provided him 17 grandchildren.

I was the national chairman of Jack's presidential campaign in 1988. I believed he was the rightful heir to Ronald Reagan and that his conservative principles and ideas would continue to build on the foundation that President Reagan had established.

Many of us thought Jack or Sen. Paul Laxalt, Reagan's closest friend and campaign chairman, should have been the vice presidential candidate in 1980. If either of them had been selected, he likely would have been the future president and there would not have been a Bush dynasty.

They were the favorites of the convention delegates and President Reagan's top choices, too. He was argued out of them because people said you couldn't have a movie star running with a football star -- or two former governors from neighboring states (California and Nevada).

Be that as it may. Jack's contributions to Ronald Reagan's legacy as the tax-cutting guru and unstoppable missionary of supply side economics made much of President Reagan's domestic policy possible. Even though he had always been a quarterback, he became a blocking back for President Reagan in moving his legislation through Congress.

Shortly after he became HUD secretary in 1989, several National Football League team owners came to him offering him the job of National Football League Commissioner to replace his long time friend Pete Rozelle.

He told me it was the one job he always wanted. My counsel was to take it. He called me back several days later and said he couldn't, because he felt he owed it to President Bush not to walk away after so short a time and that he so wanted to help all those in the urban communities who needed help.

Jack was the Republican party's greatest advocate of a "big tent theory" and felt the party of Lincoln needed to do more to broaden civil rights and encourage minority participation. He often said he played and showered with more African-Americans then most Republicans meet in a lifetime. They were his friends, and in sports you learn all men bleed the same color. He often repeated the line: "I wasn't there with Rosa Parks or Dr. King or John Lewis. But I am here now, and I am going to yell from the rooftops about what we need to do."

And just as he led his Bills to back to back championships, he drove his party to an ideology that led to the Republican Congressional majorities in the '90s.

Like all of us, Jack wasn't perfect, but he was darn good. As someone who tried to manage him, I found that he wasn't manageable. I once told him: "Jack, if I could remove half your knowledge and three-quarters of your vocabulary, I could make you into a decent candidate." He laughed and went on his merry way. And of course it was that incredible intellect and his passion for words as well as people that made him such a powerful force.

Jack Kemp was the indefatigable happy warrior, who over the last four decades drove his party with an intellectual fervor that influenced every leader from President Reagan to Speaker Newt Gingrich. He fought for his ideas with an intensity like that of very few men I have known.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.

All About Jack KempRonald ReaganGeorge H.W. Bush

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