TAMPA -- Being about the only member of the cabinet who played for both the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants, Jack Kemp has a particular perspective on today's Super Bowl. Weighing the propriety of war games, National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue made his first telephone call to Kemp, who, at appropriate moments, in the quiet manner of a superscout, canvassed Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and George Bush. To a man, they shared Kemp's instinct: Play.
"In fact, General Powell seemed especially anxious for the game to go on," Kemp said Saturday. "He was sure the troops would want that. Tyrants try to paralyze as well as terrorize, but our nation shouldn't be paralyzed by Saddam Hussein."
At the same time, the Housing and Urban Development secretary has been pleased by an unprecedented display of NFL restraint. This is the silver anniversary Super Bowl, after all, and the league is not famous for understatement. "I was glad they called off the bigger celebrations, the commissioner's party for one," Kemp said. "It shouldn't be business as usual, and it hasn't been. It's been sensitive, appropriate. I think it's been right."
Buffalo recalls him, naturally, as a star quarterback, once the most valuable player of the American Football League, who went on to throw several hats into political rings. To the astonishment of his less-enthusiastic fans, not a solitary fedora was ever intercepted. However, one presidential attempt was batted down at the line.
Meanwhile, New York City may have trouble remembering the crewcut youth, No. 17 in those days, who stood by (as second understudy) for Charlie Conerly at the Giants' fabled "sudden death" championship game of 1958. "I sat on the bench the whole season," Kemp said.
It was the era of 12 34-player teams shelling out annual salaries of about $6,000 to $16,000 a man. Over the years, Kemp's hair has grown out to a Kennedy length and look. In the parlance of both professional football and conservative politics, this is called a misdirection play.
Kemp is happy for the Giants, but ecstatic for the Bills and long-suffering Ralph Wilson, a deserving owner in the tradition of Art Rooney. But for their fans most of all. "The old heavy-industry smokestack town has long since been transformed into an attractive, clean-air city," Kemp said. "But the down-to-earth people of Buffalo have never changed. To see those great people supporting the troops and waving their American flags at the Raiders game was so beautiful. Their happiness is linked to the success of the Bills. It's their turn, their moment."
Buffalo is a city of necessary work and honest grime most frequently ridiculed from afar, although Buffalonian Michael Bennett could not resist having one of his "Chorus Line" dancers mention the redundancy of suicide in Buffalo. In the entire municipal insults league, only Cleveland and Newark can compete at this level.
Eve: "Here, take a bite of an apple."
Adam: "Are you out of your mind? God will send us straight to Buffalo."
Almost 20 years since its closing, War Memorial Stadium lingers at least in the outsider's consciousness like a haunted monument, and of course it's still snowing. Despite an explosion of handsome new sports facilities, Buffalo continues to be known for decrepit memory factories perfect for the filming of period pieces like "The Natural."
Some years ago, the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce approached a local sportswriter, Bob Curren, wondering why his visiting brethren generally sloughed off the games in order to concentrate on ripping the city. Even in the summertime, they never seemed to let up. ("There's nothing to do in Buffalo in the summertime except sit on the curb and listen to the tar bubble.") Curren was enlisted to take a few newspapermen out to dinner and to Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, absent the bride, Niagara Falls is something less than the romantic stop of literature and lore. The libel continued.
One of Curren's descendants, Larry Felser of the Buffalo News, was stopped in the Super Bowl press room Friday and asked if much has changed. He looked indescribably weary. "I don't mind catching everybody up on the whole season or even the entire history of the franchise," he said. "But almost nobody has been asking me about football. A hundred guys have wanted to know about the McKinley assassination."
"Politics are unavoidable this week," Kemp said. But 90-year-old politics? Tagliabue noted: "We are trying to set a tone, a theme, always remembering the game is being played against a backdrop of grim events."
But Kemp's phrase is worth remembering too. "Their turn." Buffalo's moment. Root for the Giants. Pull for the Bills. Cheer for the Patriots. But, smiles permitting, smile for the city of Buffalo. It's warmer there than you think.