FBI pursued Jack Kemp gay rumors

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The FBI looked into rumors that Jack Kemp, then a long-serving Republican member of Congress, was gay as a potential source of concern during a 1989 background check. The agency finally concluded that the chatter -- which haunted, and hindered, Kemp's attempts to advance in national politics for years -- was unsubstantiated.

Kemp, who died in May 2009, started his professional life as a quarterback in the National Football League and the old American Football League before throwing himself into politics. He won a Buffalo, N.Y.-area House seat in 1970, sought the 1988 GOP presidential nomination, and served as a Cabinet secretary under George H.W. Bush and as Bob Dole's running mate in 1996. His FBI file was obtained by Salon through the Freedom of Information Act.

When he was nominated in 1989 by Bush to be secretary of housing and urban development, the FBI conducted a standard background check, talking to a range of people who knew Kemp about his finances, his loyalty to the U.S., and any substance abuse problems. But the FBI files show the agents had another, more unusual area of interest: Was there anything to the rumors, dating from an episode in California in the 1960s, that the married Kemp was gay?...

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....

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