Jack Kemp, the Republican congressman who died last May, was investigated by the FBI as a possible homosexual! It all started back in the 1960s when Kemp, then part of
Ronald Reagan’s California gubernatorial administration, was rumored to be part of an active “homosexual ring.” So when the former NFL quarterback was nominated by Bush Sr. to be secretary of housing and urban development in 1989, the FBI’s background check turned up all those loose ends, including Kemp’s alleged co-ownership of a condo where gay sex took place.
And it knocked Kemp off a path to the White House, Salon says.
Kemp, then in his early 30s and the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, was at the time working on Reagan’s Sacramento staff during the off-season. He had purchased a cabin in Lake Tahoe in partnership with Reagan’s chief of staff; that’s where some of the “homosexual parties” reportedly happened. Kemp later maintained that the cabin was merely a real estate investment and he never visited it. But the columnists had referred to an unnamed “athlete” who was a member of the “ring,” a clear reference to Kemp. The rumor that would follow Kemp for the rest of his life had been born.
In a Republican Party that was hostile to gay people, the rumor became a major liability for Kemp (even as he built up a conventional GOP record of opposing gay rights). In the most stunning — and under-reported — example, a top aide to Reagan told the journalist Robert Novak that Reagan passed over Kemp for the vice-presidential nomination in 1980 because of “that homosexual thing.” Kemp had been a leading contender for the job. It went instead to George H.W. Bush, setting Bush on a direct path to the party’s ’88 presidential nomination — and the White House.
But when H.W. considered Kemp for HUD, that pesky rumor resurfaced.
After Bush defeated Michael Dukakis that fall, he asked Kemp to serve as his HUD secretary, prompting the FBI to conduct its background check. Agents clearly found the gay question of sufficient interest (or concern) to ask around about it. It even came up in an agent’s interview with Kemp himself.
The FBI also interviewed an editor at the San Diego Union newspaper who said his paper had investigated the gay rumors and found no evidence to support them. Ultimately, in a letter to the office of President-elect Bush, an FBI official summarizing the background check said the gay “allegations were unsubstantiated.” But the rumors would continue. In 1996, Newsweek reported that in the hours before Bob Dole’s selection of Kemp as his running mate, Elizabeth Dole voiced concerns about the gay rumors (along with reports of a separate, unspecified “personal indiscretion”). After he was picked for the V.P. spot, the rumors had become an inextricable part of Kemp’s biography, regularly mentioned in profiles.
The married father of four died of cancer at age 73, after serving nine terms as a New York congressman as as the planning secretary. He left behind his wife and four adult children, and a legacy of battling gay rights. Kemp certainly wasn’t the first, and definitely not the last conservative lawmaker to tip toe into the same-sex waves while railing against their tides.