When athlete-politicians square off

EX-WORLD-CLASS athletes Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley are not likely adversaries in the next race for the presidency. But it could happen. Mr. Kemp would be more than willing. Mr. Bradley, it seems, will take some coaxing. But at a breakfast the other morning, the tall New Jersey senator seemed to be toying with the idea. He certainly loves to be pestered with questions directed to his intentions about 1988.

For either or both of these particularly attractive personalities to become the nominees would provide the voters with something new: professional athletes gunning for the nation's highest office.

Republican Congressman Kemp has quickly picked up a lot of political yardage. He did much to persuade President Reagan to become a supply-sider, and he helped immensely in getting the Reagan-initiated tax cuts passed.

Democratic Senator Bradley was one of the chief shapers of the tax-reform legislation. So he's taking a lot of bows these days -- along, of course, with those who are getting most of the credit: Sen. Bob Packwood, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, and the President himself. Kemp, too, nudged tax reform along.

What would it be like to have a super athlete in the White House? The idea may be quite repugnant in academic circles, where prowess of this nature is often minimized.

Still, Kemp and Bradley were regarded as intellectual athletes. Smallish quarterback Kemp had somehow to survive with giants crashing down on him in every game -- with every ``sack'' endangering his career. He outwitted those threatening rushers and put together a long life on the gridiron where he fashioned a reputation for his cool judgment under pressure.

Bradley was an athlete-student at Princeton. This combined talent won him a Rhodes Scholarship. Then he went on to a spectacular career with the New York Knicks, where he was, like Kemp, one of those athletes who could be counted on to deliver.

Bradley was particularly impressive at this breakfast with reporters as he dealt knowledgeably with the complex details of the new tax bill. Sure, he had been living with tax reform for years -- having his own version that helped shape the final result.

It is not unusual in Washington to find some of the leading advocates of legislation apparently never mastering the intricacies of what they are advocating. Or, at least, they continue to talk only in generalities, both in their speeches and when under questioning by reporters. But Bradley is able to discuss any subject with knowledge -- be it economics, foreign affairs, or defense.

And so is Kemp. He knows his stuff. These days he pretty much conducts a seminar on economics whenever he meets with reporters. At first his earnestness in discussing economic theory drew some grins. In fact, it sometimes seemed that he was trying a little too hard to erase his football-star image and replace it with that of a man immersed in knowledge of the world. But in recent years the press -- and his Democratic critics -- have come to regard Kemp as a knowledgeable fellow with an abundance of political savvy.

But either of these men -- as presidential candidates -- will be rapped in some quarters. The question will be asked, again and again, ``Who wants a `jock' running our country?''

Gerald Ford stirred up a certain amount of this kind of criticism. He had been an outstanding center on the University of Michigan football team. Ford's critics liked to say he was ``dumb,'' and made much of his football career as a reference point for this assertion. Forgotten was the fact that Ford finished in the upper third of his Yale law class.

Actually, there are a lot of fans of professional athletes who are also voters: people who could be counted on by Kemp or Bradley for their support. If it is one against another, then who knows how that support would divide up.

But when it comes to votes, it is obvious that a popular pro athlete could well lose academia and pick up the fans and come out, at the polls, well ahead. Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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