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Public Statements

Tribute To Jack Kemp

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. McCONNELL. Madam President, the Nation says its last farewell to Jack Kemp tomorrow afternoon. But Americans will long remember the tremendous impact he has had on our lives and on our politics. So today I would like to add my voice to the many others who have spoken well of this good man.

The arc of Jack's life is well known: middle-class son of a small businessman and his social worker wife. Jack never wanted to be anything but a professional football player, and he worked very hard at it. Good enough to get drafted by the Lions but not quite good enough to make the team, Jack dug in, passing briefly through a few football teams before being sidelined by an injury and ending up with the Buffalo Bills, where he became one of the great quarterbacks of all time. Jack showed his skills early on with the Bills. In his very first game, he completed 21 of 35 passes, including 2 touchdowns for 230 yards. By the time he retired in 1969, he would rank first in passes, completions, and passing yardage among all American Football League quarterbacks.

But Jack's restless mind was stirring even before he left the field. Teammates would later recall that on long plane rides, while they would be reading playbooks, Jack would be reading economic theory or the latest ``National Review.'' During the off season, Jack volunteered on political campaigns, including the gubernatorial campaign of Ronald Reagan. It was all the training he would need.

After retiring from pro football, his path to politics was as sure as his 10-yard pass. And so was his path to success. Armed with a kinetic personality, a sharp mind, and a passion for ideas and for people, Jack set about with the zeal of a preacher to spread his convictions about the economic benefits of sharp tax cuts. He was so convincing that tax cuts became the centerpiece of his party's platform in 1980, the basis of its revival and, most importantly, the cause of the unprecedented prosperity of the next two decades.

Growing up, Jack was the captain of every team for which he ever played. That didn't change when he came to Washington. He was calling the plays here now, and people were eager to follow. He was as likable as he was persuasive, all the more so because he didn't seek out popularity.

He was always driven by something else. At his core, Jack was motivated by nothing more than a deep desire to see America live up to its founding promise of equality for everyone, regardless of color, religion, or background. The fight for equality was Jack's consuming passion.

Like everyone who grew up playing sports, he knew firsthand that winning ball games had nothing to do with color. But as a quarterback, he appreciated this more than most. The crowds may have cheered for Jack, but he knew that every time he threw a pass or ran for a touchdown, an offensive line stood guard, many of them African American. These were his teammates, his friends, and he witnessed the discrimination they encountered many times. But there was one moment from those days that always lived in Jack's memory. It was in 1960. Jack was playing for the Chargers at the time. They were in Houston for the AFL Championship, and during the playing of the ``National Anthem,'' Jack looked over toward his father at the 50-yard line. The father of his cocaptain, Charlie McNeil, was not there. He later found out that Mr. McNeil had been forced to sit in a section of the end zone that was roped off for Blacks. It was one of many terrible indignities that would make Jack a restless promoter of equality throughout his life.

A self-described bleeding heart conservative, Jack's childlike love for America and all it promised was evident until the end. In a letter to his grandchildren just this past November, Jack said his first thought upon learning that an African American had won the Presidency was: ``Is this a great country or not?'' ``Just think,'' he wrote, ``a little over 40 years ago, Blacks in America had trouble even voting in our country, much less thinking about running for the highest office in the land.''

Jack was not your average politician, but he was a necessary one, constantly challenging the establishment. He was a political entrepreneur, restless to get things done. Colleagues remember how Cabinet meetings were always livelier with Jack there--whether he was rolling his eyes in disagreement or squirming in his chair. No room ever seemed big enough to contain him. Sometimes when congressional leadership would meet over in the White House, Jack's former colleague and ours, Trent Lott, would have to kick him under the table to keep him from saying something he might regret later on. Convention just never suited him, and the Nation and our party was always a lot better because of it.

We will miss Jack's insistence, his passion, his energy, and we will miss seeing him, the broad smile, the snow-white hair, plowing into a crowd, bounding up on a stage, and hurling an imaginary football off into the distance.

Jack was a happy, raspy-voiced evangelist for the ideas that shaped a generation and revived a political party. He believed, rightly, that conservative ideas were universal--that if they applied to one group, they applied to all groups. And he rolled up his sleeves to prove it, whether as a candidate for Vice President, a Cabinet Secretary spending a night in a Philadelphia housing project, or in these last years as an advocate for many of the causes he believed in, a speaker, a wise party elder and, above all, a devoted husband to his beloved Joanne, father, and grandfather.

It is hard to imagine someone of Jack's energy and enthusiasm succumbing to anything; he was always so full of life, the vital center of every room he entered and every debate. We will miss his passion. We are all grateful for his goodness. And as we say our final goodbye to Jack French Kemp, we are consoled by the thought that after a painful illness, he has broken away now like a wide receiver from the pack, into the welcoming embrace of a loving God.


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