Morris King "Mo" Udall (June 15, 1922 – December 12, 1998) was an American politician who served as a U.S. Representative from Arizona from May 2, 1961 to May 4, 1991. A former professional basketball player with the old National Basketball League Denver Nuggets, noted for his liberal views, Mo Udall was a tall (6'5"), Lincolnesque figure with a self-deprecating wit and easy manner. Because of his wit, columnist James J. Kilpatrick deemed him "too funny to be president", which also ended up being the title of his autobiography in the 1980s. Udall earned a law degree from the University of Arizona in 1949. He was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Udall was born in St. Johns, Apache County, Arizona, a son of Louisa (n e Lee) and Levi Stewart Udall. He lost his right eye to a friend's pocket knife at the age of 6, while the two were attempting to cut some string, and wore a glass eye for the rest of his life. He attempted to enlist in the Army early in World War II, and almost succeeded, by covering his glass eye each time he was told to alternate during the eye exam. After he was medically cleared, another potential enlistee complained that he had been medically rejected for flat feet, while Udall had been cleared with a blind eye. This caused the examiners to retest Udall under closer scrutiny, and he was rejected. Later, medical standards changed and Udall served in the Army until the end of the war.
Later, Udall attended the University of Arizona, where he was a star basketball player and a member of Sigma Chi Fraternity. He played for the Denver Nuggets for one year following graduation as well as attending the University of Denver school of law, and then returned to the University of Arizona for law school, where he graduated in 1949.
In 1961, his brother Stewart Udall, the congressman for Arizona's second congressional district, located in the southern portion of the state, was appointed Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy administration. Mo Udall won a special election for his brother's vacant seat by only 2,000 votes. He won the seat in his own right in 1962, and was reelected 13 more times. He only faced one close race, in 1978, when he was held to 52 percent of the vote.
During his tenure in Congress, Udall was best-noted for his championing of environmental causes. He was also known for his devotion to campaign finance reform and the welfare of Native Americans. He authored the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, which doubled the size of the National Park System, as well as legislation to protect archaeological finds, enacting civil service reform, legalizing Indian casinos, and providing for the safe disposal of radioactive waste.
In 1979, Udall was diagnosed with incurable Parkinson's disease. While he managed to stay in Congress for another 12 years, by 1991 his health had deteriorated to the point where he was forced to resign from Congress on May 4. He died on December 12, 1998 of complications from his illness.
In 1976, he ran for the Democratic nomination for President as a liberal alternative to Jimmy Carter, the former Governor of Georgia. Carter had gone from obscure maverick to front runner after a string of early caucus and primary victories, beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire. At the time of the Wisconsin primary in April, most of the original 10 candidates had dropped out, leaving Udall, Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, and Carter. Udall looked set to win the primary and as the returns ticked in, it looked like he would win it. This might have slowed down the Carter momentum. Udall was projected the winner, exclaiming "Oh, how sweet it is". But as the election night progressed, Carter began chipping away at Udall's lead, eventually going into the lead.
Some newspapers actually proclaimed Udall the winner because of his lead the night before, not unlike the famous incident in the 1948 presidential election, in which the headlines of the Chicago Tribune erroneously proclaimed "Dewey defeats Truman."
Carter's win was by 1%, which was no more than 7,500 votes. He won 37% to Udall's 36%, gaining one more convention delegate than Udall. Despite the small margins, Carter got the headlines and a further boost to his momentum, pulling away from Udall and the other candidates. In the end, Udall finished second in the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New York, Michigan, South Dakota, and Ohio primaries, and won the caucuses in his home state of Arizona, while running even with Carter in the New Mexico caucuses. Udall finished a distant second place to Carter at the Democratic National Convention, where his name was placed in nomination by Archibald Cox, and Udall's speech received great applause from his supporters.
During the Michigan primary, the Carter campaign had Coleman Young, the mayor of Detroit, accuse Udall of racism for belonging to the LDS church, which at the time, did not allow blacks to serve in the church's priesthood (since changed in 1978 by LDS Church President, Spencer W. Kimball). Young's attack was at least somewhat unfair, since Udall had been a longtime critic of that church policy, and had ceased being an active member because of it. Carter's subsequent sweeping of the black vote in the Michigan primary was key to his crucial and narrow victory in Michigan.
Udall supported Senator Edward Kennedy's challenge to President Carter in 1980, and Kennedy won the Arizona caucuses, one of only three wins for Kennedy in the west. Udall delivered the keynote speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, which was a typically witty Udall speech. Udall considered running for president again in 1984, but his illness kept him on the sidelines. At the convention that summer, Udall introduced his old foe, President Carter.
In 1992, the US Congress founded the Morris K. Udall Scholarship and Excellence in National Environmental Policy Foundation. It is an agency of the executive branch of the federal government, and among other functions, gives scholarships to students of environmental policy. In 2009, Congress added Mo's brother, Stewart Udall, into the foundation by renaming it the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation.
Federal funds for Parkinson's research are designated through the Morris K. Udall Parkinson's Disease Research Act of 1997. The legislation funded a national network of "Centers of Excellence" to diagnose and treat Parkinson disease patients, and to refer patients into research protocols.
In 1996, Morris received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton.
Mo's son, Mark Udall, was elected to the U.S. Congress from Colorado's 2nd district in 1998 and to the U.S. Senate in 2008. Mo's nephew Tom Udall of New Mexico was also elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008. His second cousin Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon was defeated for re-election the same year.
In Tucson, Arizona, the main post office and a city park are named in his honor. Point Udall on Guam, considered the westernmost point of the United States, is also named for him.
Despite his years of service, the only political acquaintance who regularly visited him during his final years in a Veteran's hospital was his friend Senator John McCain.
- Carson, Donald W., and Johnson, James W., 2004, Mo: The Life and Times of Morris K. Udall . Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press. (ISBN 0816524491)
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