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Environmental Leader Rep. Mo Udall Dies
By Richard Pearson
| Morris Udall addresses the Democratic National Convention in July 1988. (AP File Photo)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 1998; Page E6
Morris K. Udall, 76, the highly intelligent, immensely witty and universally respected Arizona Democrat who served in the House of Representatives from 1961 to 1991, died Dec. 12 at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington. He had Parkinson's disease.
When Mr. Udall retired from Congress, The Washington Post's David Broder wrote: "The legacy he left is imposing and enduring. It ranges from strip mining and Alaskan wilderness legislation to the reform of archaic committee and floor procedures that congressional barons had used to conceal their arbitrary power. For a whole generation of congressmen, Udall became a mentor and a model – and they will miss him as much as the press galleries do."
In 1996, President Clinton presented Mr. Udall with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying: "Morris Udall represents everything a lawmaker should be. His work is a gift to all Americans."
Mr. Udall came to the House in 1961 with a résumé that included entries as a county attorney, law professor and professional basketball player. He won a special election to replace his brother, Stewart, who resigned from Congress to become President John F. Kennedy's secretary of the interior.
The new congressman first gained a reputation as something of a liberal maverick who looked after the interests of his district while advocating the reform of the House seniority system.
He lost a 1969 race for House speaker to incumbent John W. McCormack Jr. (D-Mass.) and two years later was defeated for majority leader by Hale Boggs (D-La.). In 1976, he ran a heartbreaking race for the presidential nomination, finishing a close second in a seemingly endless stream of primaries.
In 1977, Mr. Udall rose to the chairmanship of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, a post he held until stepping down in 1991. A member of the committee since 1963, he long used that assignment to write much of the nation's most important environmental legislation and to protect his state's land, water and mining interests.
Under his leadership, millions of acres of federal lands were designated as wilderness, a ban was placed on development on millions of acres in Alaska, and landmark legislation addressed problems in strip mining and nuclear waste management.
He had been a member of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee since 1961, where he was a leader in efforts to revise pay scales for federal employees, institute merit pay and transform the Post Office Department into a semiprivate organization.
He also served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and opposed the Reagan administration's policies in Central America. He came out against U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam in 1967. Outside committee and Arizona issues, he took an interest not only in reform of the House itself but also in national campaign finance legislation.
Though he devoted 30 years to his congressional career, he only became nationally known in 1976, when he ran for president. He said he was reluctant to run because he believed the public was not ready to vote for a mere congressman for president, but changed his mind after being urged to run by a broad and eclectic band of his colleagues.
Mr. Udall ran a campaign that was long on wit and intelligence and woefully short on money. He also had the misfortune to run in a year when many believed the public was more disenchanted with Congress and Washington than usual.
Yet, in New Hampshire on Feb. 24, he finished second to eventual nominee Jimmy Carter, 28.4 percent to 22.7 percent. A week later, in Massachusetts, Mr. Udall again finished a close second (22.3 to 17.7 percent), this time to Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (Wash.). Carter finished fourth with 13.9 percent.
On April 6, Carter won Wisconsin with 271,000 votes to Mr. Udall's 263,000. The election was so close that some newspapers and two networks had proclaimed Mr. Udall the winner. On May 18, a similar fate awaited Mr. Udall in Michigan, where he again finished second to Carter – 307,000 votes to 305,000.
This was the effective end of Mr. Udall's campaign. After finishing second in seven primaries and winning none, he made his peace with the Carter camp. He was not a vocal critic of the Carter administration, seeing eye to eye with Carter on many environmental and government reform issues. However, he did support Sen. Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy (Mass.) in his 1980 bid for the presidential nomination. Mr. Udall was by this time a highly respected, senior party figure in Congress and was chosen as the national party convention's keynote speaker.
He toyed with the idea of running for the presidency again in 1984, then announced he would not. He implied, in his Lincolnesque way, that part of the reason may have been his difficulties in 1976. He often told the story of approaching a group of elderly gents in New Hampshire to say that he was Mo Udall and was running for president, only to receive the reply, "We were just laughing about that."
In Massachusetts, he claimed, he thrust his hand at one voter and asked for his support only to be told, "I'm Birch Bayh [the Indiana senator also running for the nomination] and you're my second choice." There also were stories of landings at wrong airports, being booked in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Suite in a Sacramento hotel, and trying to pay for what seemed to be his entire Wisconsin primary campaign with his American Express Card.
Yet it was after Mr. Udall left the national spotlight in 1976 that he may have gained his greatest success as a legislator. He ushered legislation through Congress that added 8 million acres, in 20 states, into the federal wilderness system. He also helped write 1977 strip mining legislation, the 1980 Alaska Lands Act and a 1982 nuclear waste act – all of which passed. He also became perhaps the most feared foe of the Reagan Interior Department, a barbed critic of Interior Secretary James Watt. Mr. Udall also became a leader in the fight to preserve the Manassas Battlefield National Park here.
Morris King Udall was born June 15, 1922, in St. Johns, Ariz. His father, Levi Stewart Udall, had served as a justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, and his mother, Louise "Lee" Udall, had been active in political volunteer work. The young Udall lost an eye in an accident when he was 6. He later said that, as a long, lanky figure with one eye, he never had a date in high school and started using self-deprecating humor just to survive.
He served with the Army Air Forces in the Pacific during World War II and graduated with distinction from the University of Arizona law school in 1949. Mr. Udall, who was 6 feet 5, played pro basketball in Denver in 1948 and 1949.
He and his brother founded the law firm of Udall & Udall, in Tucson, in 1949. Mr. Udall was chief deputy attorney of Pima County, Ariz., from 1950 to 1952, then county attorney in 1953 and 1954. He taught labor law at the University of Arizona law school in 1955 and 1956 and practiced law in Tucson until 1961.
His victory in a special election in 1961 was something of a referendum on the new Kennedy administration, with Mr. Udall the champion of the new president and causes decidedly more liberal than his district. He won with 51 percent of the vote.
In later years, Mr. Udall, a popular figure in Arizona, faced little opposition until after his 1976 presidential race. He then faced a couple of well-financed Republican opponents, as well as primary opposition after the lines of his 2nd District were redrawn. But he weathered those storms with seeming ease, even after announcing in 1980 that he had Parkinson's disease.
After arriving in Congress, Mr. Udall had the usual difficulties of freshman legislators of his generation learning the House ropes. During his second term, he organized a school for freshmen to teach them the arcane ways of the lower house. Out of this came Mr. Udall's 1966 book, "The Job of a Congressman." In 1972, he published "Education of a Congressman." In 1988, his autobiography, "Too Funny to Be President," appeared. In addition to these humorous and informative works was the somewhat less entertaining "Arizona Law of Evidence," published in 1960.
His books about Congress included the valuable and the witty. He told how he once decided that he could determine how to vote on impenetrably complicated, though important, procedural questions by doing just the opposite of the man preceding him on the roll. If that despised fossil voted yes, Mr. Udall explained, no was obviously the correct vote. He recounted that this worked like a charm until one day when the older congressman voted "present."
His marriage to the former Patricia Emery, whom he married in 1949, ended in divorce in 1966. Two years later, he married Ella Royston Ward, who died in 1988.
In addition to his brother, survivors include his wife, the former Norma Gilbert, whom he married in 1989, and six children from his first marriage.
Last month, a son, Mark Udall, was elected to Congress from Colorado, and a nephew, Tom Udall, was elected to Congress from New Mexico.