Mo's Better Blues

Recounting the life and times of an Arizona giant.

Mo: The Life & Times of Morris K. Udall, by Donald W. Carson and James W. Johnson. University of Arizona Press. Cloth, $29.95.

Back in college, I had a part-time job as the sports editor of the Douglas (Ariz.) Daily Dispatch. One afternoon in August of 1976, Mo Udall walked through the door and sat down at the desk of a reporter who was going to interview him. Despite having just lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Jimmy Carter, he was in fine spirits. Halfway through the interview, Udall looked over at me and said impishly, "Do you have any questions?"

I mentioned that an article in Rolling Stone magazine claimed that at the recently completed Democratic National Convention, Udall had turned his back in a disdainful way on speaker Ron Kovic (the crippled Vietnam Vet who was the subject of the Tom Cruise movie Born on the Fourth of July). Udall looked puzzled. I gave him the article to read.

When he finished, he said, "Well, this never happened. It's just not right." But then he added, "But hey, if it's in Rolling Stone, there must be something to it."

Just another moment in the life of Congressman and almost-president Morris K. Udall, a man who not only knew what was right, but had the courage to act on his principles and the sense of humor to shrug off the injustices and insanity thrown in his direction along the way. It is a life chronicled in the new book from the University of Arizona Press, Mo: The Life & Times of Morris K. Udall, by UA journalism professors Donald W. Carson and James W. Johnson.

In a state that has yet to reach its centennial, Arizona has had far more than its share of larger-than-life figures and outrageous rascals. But looming over the Barry Goldwaters and Evan Mechams, the Carl Haydens and the J.D. Hayworths in the history of Arizona politics is Udall. This meticulously researched recounting of his life and career is long overdue and most welcome.

Born the grandson of a polygamist, Mo Udall grew up in St. Johns, Ariz., not far from the New Mexico state line. Mo's father, Levi Stewart Udall, was a justice of the Arizona Supreme Court and he wrote the landmark 1948 decision that gave Arizona Indians the right to vote. Yes, that's 1948!

Despite losing an eye in a childhood knife accident, Udall was a nearly unstoppable force. He excelled in high school, in the military during World War II and then at the UA after the war. At one time at the UA, he was student body president, star of the basketball team and also wrote for the campus paper. While there, his sense of injustice prompted him to desegregate the school's cafeteria. One day, he and his brother Stewart asked Morgan Maxwell, Jr., son of the principal of the all-black Dunbar School in town (and the man for whom Maxwell Middle School is named) to join them for lunch. They all sat down and were served lunch and that was that. Udall's reputation was such that no one questioned his motives or intent.

He became a successful lawyer in Tucson and in 1961 he ran in a special election for the Congressional seat vacated by his brother when Stewart was named Secretary of the Interior by President Kennedy. He easily won the Democratic primary and then won by a razor-thin margin over his openly racist, John Bircher opponent. He'd never have another close race for Congress.

In Washington, Udall quickly made a name for himself as something of a maverick with unimpeachable integrity. His wit and intelligence made him much in demand as a speaker.

He battled the Old Guard in Congress and helped overturn the seniority system. He championed civil rights for all people and was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. While he did not practice the religion, he considered himself a Mormon and would later admit to friends that it was the negative view toward the LDS Church that might have cost him the Presidential nomination in 1976. (Jimmy Carter would go on to edge the Nixon-tainted Gerald Ford in the general election; Udall would've creamed Ford.)

Udall remained in the national spotlight, both as a speaker and as the conscience of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, in the late 1980s, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. In early 1991, a couple months after winning his 16th term in the House, he was seriously injured in a fall. He resigned his seat a few months later and spent the last several years of his life in seclusion. He died in 1998. His legacy will help shape Arizona's politics and progress well into the 21st century.

The book, sometimes a tad too dry and journalistic for my taste, is a winner, nevertheless. This book should be required reading in Arizona history classes. In a state known all too often for its crackpot Republicans and milquetoast Democrats, a giant of a man emerged from a small town and combined his strong family-taught ethics with his New Deal-inspired desire to help the downtrodden, and, in the process, became one of the truly great Americans of the 20th century.

Mo Udall deserves to be remembered and this book goes a long way toward that end. Through wars, domestic strife and political scandals, he was a man who never lost his direction, but never took himself too seriously, either.

At a golf tournament, he was asked what his handicap was. He quipped, "Handicap? I'm a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona ... you can't find a higher handicap than that."

Donald W. Carson and James W. Johnson will sign copies of their book Mo: The Life and Times of Morris K. Udall Saturday, March 31 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble at the Foothills Mall, 7325 N. La Cholla Blvd. Call 742-6402 for more information.