Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, had a haunting comment: What would have happened if 15,000 more citizens had voted for Morris Udall in the 1976 presidential primaries?
"What a lot of people don't know is that with a change of 15,000 votes in five primaries in 1976, he would have won those five primaries. . . . Those were the key primaries. He ran a razor-thin second in each of five primaries," Owens said.It's always fun to speculate about what might have been, and in this case, it's rumination on a gargantuan scale. If Udall's campaign had pushed just a little harder; if a few more environmental groups had worked for him; if, if, if. As it happened, Udall was the last opponent of Jimmy Carter to drop out of the Democratic primaries.
If the Arizona congressman had won those critical five races, and assuming he then collected the nomination and went on to defeat Gerald Ford, the world certainly would be different today.
For one thing, Udall had political savvy, while Carter was deficient in that department, leading to this century's only turnover in a president's re-election bid.
So much for what ifs. What really happened is that Udall classically fit John F. Kennedy's definition of courage: grace under pressure.
In the last few years, he was tormented by Parkinson's disease, deteriorating more fearsomely all the time, until last week his family was forced to announce he was retiring from the House of Representatives.
Throughout a decade and a half of increasing pain and disability, he bravely went about his business, chairing the House Interior Committee with his trademark skill and good humor.
I remember seeing him when he arrived in Salt Lake City for a hearing on the proposal to build a high-level nuclear waste repository on the doorsteps of Canyonlands National Park, around 1982. Udall had just flown over the site. (He had a special interest in Canyonlands, beyond his usual efforts to protect national parks, because his brother, the great conservationist Stewart Udall, was instrumental in establishing Canyonlands.)
Morris Udall exited the plane and shuffled into the airport, and I was shocked by his pained, weary expression and stiff gait. It was terrible to see how he was wracked. He headed for the men's room, not looking right or left.
But as Terri Martin, Utah representative of the National Parks and Conservation Association, said, he then "chaired this hearing with command, humor, direction and clarity."
Brant Calkin, now the director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Cedar City, ran for state land commissioner in New Mexico several years ago. Udall took time to speak at a fund-raising function in Santa Fe, after working all day.
When he arrived, Udall was clearly suffering from fatigue and Parkinson's disease, but he still held a press conference for Calkin. Reporters seemed interested in talking to the representative all night, although Udall was getting extremely tired.
So when a reporter asked Calkin something, and Calkin answered, Udall took the opportunity to close the press conference, saying - as is traditional at the end of a White House meeting with reporters - "Thank you, Mr. President."
Udall had difficulty putting on his jacket because it required reaching painfully behind himself. He chatted about this, perfectly candid.
"Even though he was very ill, if you asked him about it he didn't shy away and he didn't seek any particular pity. He just told how he dealt with it," Calkin said.
Roland Robison, now regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, knew Udall both when Robison worked on the staff of another congressman, and later as an official with the BLM and then Reclamation.
"Morris Udall always livened up committee meetings," he said. "He always had something witty to say, but it was never mean. It was frequently directed toward himself.
"His humor was the type that made people laugh, but at the same time made them feel good."
Udall used humor to turn aside anger, sooth ruffled feathers, throw light on an issue. "Even though he was totally substantive, he used humor as a tool, and had the quickest wit of anybody that I've ever known," Owens said.
"I'm using superlatives, but it's hard to talk in any other terms."
Although Udall could turn almost any situation into a telling quip, he was totally substantive, Owens said. In difficult mark-up sessions, when everybody was getting hot and bothered over the wording of some bill, "inevitably he would come up with the language that solved all the problems."
"He was the most creative legislator I ever knew. He saw legislative opportunity and was able to cast chaff aside. . . . He was really not only unsurpassed, he was really unequalled in the House."
"We held the guy in the highest esteem," said George Nickas of the Utah Wilderness Association. "We had our differences on policy issues at times with Mo Udall. He was always a very strong supporter of the mining interests and the 1872 Mining Law, for example."
He also was an especially strong advocate of the Central Arizona Project, a monstrously big water project in that state. He watched out like a hawk for his constituents, miners, small ranchers, other public land users.
"Even though he was supporting some things that we environmentalists didn't agree with, you always knew he would deal fairly with you on the issue - and that he was always concerned about the environment," Nickas said.
Let that ideal serve as a beacon in our rough-and-tumble environmental debates: deal fairly and openly, state positions honestly. A clean fighter, regardless of which side he espouses, should win the respect of all.