A statesman steps off the stage

  • 30 YEARS IN CONGRESS: Morris K. Udall


When House Interior Committee Chairman Morris K. Udall of Arizona flew north in 1977 to hold hearings on a bill to protect more than 100 million acres in Alaska, locals in the town of Pelican hanged him in effigy.

Ten years later, when Udall returned to Alaska to make a speech, an audience of chamber of commerce members in Anchorage gave him a standing ovation. Afterward, he talked about the applause with his characteristic humor, saying it was getting easier to come back to Alaska because locals were using all their fingers when they waved at him.

When Udall died last month at age 76 after a protracted struggle with Parkinson's disease, House Interior Committee Chairman Don Young of Alaska, who fought bitterly against the Alaska Lands Act, said that despite their repeated conflicts, he had deep respect for Udall.

Udall inspired respect because he valued the opinions of other people, recalled Roy Jones, an Interior Committee staffer when Udall forged a bipartisan compromise on Alaska's wilderness bill.

"Each week, in the committee, there were many, many times when Republicans would want their day in court," Jones recalled. "Mo's ruling could have been to rule them out of order, cutting short debate. But Mo would look for a means of compromise, of going the extra step of allowing the minority to have its say. If the process had been shortchanged or he ran roughshod over the minority, he would not have the benefit of the doubt when needed."

In his 30-year congressional career, Udall had that effect on his fiercest adversaries. Rather than ram bills down opponents' throats, he triumphed through the art of finding consensus.

"The important thing about Mo is that he was a practical man. He was not an ideologue," said Priscilla Robinson, a Tucson environmentalist who worked with Udall on air pollution, water and other issues. "Mo Udall was the master of the art of the deal. Today, that has kind of a slimy sound. In truth, that is how you get stuff done."

As much as any Washington politician, Udall helped guide environmentalism into mainstream politics. But his legacy can be found in other aspects of American public life. In 1967, he became one of the first House Democrats to oppose the Vietnam War, even though his brother Stewart was President Lyndon Johnson's secretary of Interior. He also led a congressional inquiry that uncovered many of the details of the U.S. military's My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians.

In 1977, shortly after taking over the House Interior Committee chairmanship, he shepherded through a law that required coal companies to reclaim their strip-mined land. In addition to the Alaska bill, which doubled national park acreage and tripled wilderness acreage, he helped pass at least 40 other wilderness and national park bills and secured a share of Arizona's dwindling water supplies for Indians.

Udall wasn't always triumphant. He failed in attempts to be elected Speaker of the House and House Majority Leader and he finished second to Jimmy Carter in seven presidential primaries. On the environmental front, he had to quickly abandon an attempt to reform the 1872 Mining Law that allows companies to mine gold, silver and other minerals on public lands without paying royalties. The reform try led to a brief attempt by miners in his Tucson-based district to recall him.

Udall was not a purist. At times, Arizona environmentalists called him the Representative from Alaska because they felt he neglected Arizona's environmental problems, according to a 1988 article in the Tucson-based City Magazine. He voted to build seven telescopes on Mount Graham in southern Arizona (HCN, 7/24/95) despite apparent misgivings about the massive University of Arizona project's effects on the mountain, the magazine reported.

He spent his entire career making sure Arizona got the $4 billion Central Arizona Project to pump Colorado River water 330 miles uphill to Phoenix and Tucson. The water arrived in his home town not long after a fall at his Washington, D.C., house forced him into retirement in 1991. He spent the rest of his life bedridden.

In 1986, he expressed regrets about the biggest and most expensive federal water project.

"... If I could turn the clock back 50 years and do it all over again, instead of spending $3 billion for a water plan that would let Tucson grow and turn Phoenix into another Los Angeles, I would have suggested that we take land by the Colorado River, where we have the water, and build 10 cities the size of Yuma," he told Arizona Highways magazine. "But that's hindsight."

The 1960s struggle to build CAP may have produced more than hindsight. Udall's former legislative assistant, Richard Olson, said recently that two proposed dams in the Grand Canyon - they were supposed to produce electricity to finance CAP - deeply affected Udall.

"There was a debate in Arizona between the two of them, Udall and David Brower (then the Sierra Club executive director), and I think it was kind of embarrassing to him in a way to be advocating these dams," recalled Olson. "It came from not having a good answer to some of the arguments that were made against the dams." Eventually, both Mo and Stewart Udall stopped supporting the dams.

His former allies and colleagues differ on how he would deal with the current environmental gridlock, but everyone agrees he would be horrified at today's politics.

"He would have found a lot to laugh about, but he also would have been appalled at the misdirected passion," said Mark Trautwein, a House Interior Committee staffer during Udall's chairmanship.

"Mo was a man of enormous principle and passion, but he was also a man of great fairness and equilibrium, who knew when to make a principled compromise in the public interest. What Congress needs now is a half-dozen Mo Udalls."