I RAN into Jack Kemp in a New Orleans hotel lobby a few moments after George Bush had brought his surprising choice as a running mate before the TV cameras. Mr. Kemp, like everyone else in the crowd who had just witnessed this announcement, seemed a bit dazed. He had wanted that No. 2 spot for himself. But, he said, he had known for some days he had been out of the running.
There was no bitterness in Kemp, however, even though he was convinced he could have helped the Bush ticket - and certainly would have avoided the firestorm of scrutiny that greeted Dan Quayle. Kemp is the eternal optimist. But at that somber moment, he doubtless was wondering where he now could put his considerable skills to use.
Join the conservative Heritage Foundation? Look for an opportunity to run for the US Senate or for Governor? Or would Bush tap him for a cabinet post? As he has since admitted, Kemp liked the idea of becoming treasury secretary.
But when he was passed over for the most prestigious administration jobs, he must have wondered if he was being pushed off the national political stage permanently.
Then President Bush asked Kemp to take the cabinet position no one else seemed to want: secretary of a troubled and troublesome agency, Housing and Urban Development. Kemp grabbed it.
Characteristically, Kemp turned the challenge into a triumph. He has presided energetically over the cleanup of that scandal-ridden agency. At the same time, he has proven himself a ``conservative-progressive,'' bringing hope to millions of poor by embracing the concept of a partnership between government and families to develop better housing in deteriorating neighborhoods.
Kemp contends that ownership is the answer - that the poor will take pride in what is theirs. And many blacks are hailing him as a leader with an idea whose time has come. In a segment on TV's ``60 Minutes'' recently, viewers couldn't miss the genuine affection Kemp drew from the inner-city residents he was visiting.
It is Jack Kemp, more than anyone else, who is winning friends for George Bush in the black community. Bush had helped himself by making it clear, from the outset of his administration, that he intends to be a president of ``all the people.'' Bush has made a point of bringing black leaders into his consultations. But it is Kemp who has been winning the hearts of blacks.
Kemp, after taking on Bush in the primaries, later worked hard for his election. Some have written that the personal chemistry between Kemp and Bush isn't all that good. But there's no evidence of this in what the two men are saying about each other. Bush hails Kemp's achievements at HUD. And Kemp has always given Bush his full support - that is, until recently.
A few weeks ago, the HUD secretary just couldn't resist a negative response to the president's thesis that the burgeoning budget deficit called for new thinking and new measures - opening the door, apparently, to new taxes. Kemp is a longtime proponent of the supply-side doctrine, which holds that that high taxes stifle initiative and lead to lower federal revenues, while low taxes do the opposite.
``The sky is not falling,'' he said to an interviewer. ``The deficit is not ballooning. The economy is stronger than it is getting credit for .... The transcendent issue is economic growth. Cutting taxes, not increasing taxes, is the route to economic growth.''
Jack Kemp, who co-sponsored the big tax cuts backed by President Reagan, was being Jack Kemp again. From his point of view, he wasn't deserting the president. Instead, as he told us at a press breakfast last week, he felt he was helping Bush by articulating a position that should be given full weight in the presidential decisions that lay ahead. Jack Kemp has come a long way from that afternoon in New Orleans when he was left wondering whether he'd ever be back in the center stage of national politics.