By Amelia Knapp, USCHS Intern
Mo Udall (D-AZ) led a successful 30-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives with his dedication to the “three E’s – environment, economy and energy.” Although he represented a conservative Arizona district, he became a leading liberal voice calling for reforms to campaign practices and the seniority system in Congress. His peers and constituents found him to be “highly intelligent and immensely witty” and his resume reflected his diverse background, including time spent as a county attorney, University of Arizona law professor and a stint with the American Basketball Association’s Denver Nuggets. But it was Udall’s environmental activism that distinguished his service in Congress.
Morris King Udall was born on June 12, 1922, in St. Johns, Arizona, into a large Mormon family. Growing up, Udall was surrounded by public servants. His parents were involved in public and civic service activities. His father, Levi S. Udall, was the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, and his mother, Louise “Lee” Udall, was deeply involved with issues concerning Native Americans. She later published Me and Mine, a book about the life of a Hopi Indian woman.
Udall and his brother, Stewart, developed a close bond in childhood that lasted throughout their lives. The two attended the University of Arizona and were members of the varsity basketball team. World War II interrupted Mo’s academic pursuits and he left school to serve as a Captain in the Army Air Corps. Upon his return to Arizona, he entered the ABA and played for the Denver Nuggets in the 1948-49 season.
In 1949, Udall earned his law degree from the University of Arizona and joined his brother’s Tucson practice, which became Udall and Udall. Both brothers had political ambitions. After being elected president of the senior class at the University of Arizona, Mo had dreamed of a career in politics, possibly serving in Congress. However, when Stewart decided to run for a Congressional seat, Mo refused to stand in his brother’s way. Mo later cited family harmony as a important factor in deciding not to run against his brother. After Stewart’s election to the House of Representatives, Mo Udall left the family practice and became the Pima County attorney. He also taught labor law at his alma mater in 1955-56.
In 1961, after President John F. Kennedy appointed Stewart to become Secretary of the Department of the Interior, a special election was held and Mo Udall won his brother’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served for 30 years, with over half of the time spent as Chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. While he served in the House, he sponsored several landmark bills for the environment, including the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act, passed in 1980.
That conservation bill involved the protection of more than 150 million acres of land; it doubled the size of the national parks holdings and tripled the size of the national wilderness system. He later recalled, “My aim was to protect what are sometimes called the ‘Crown Jewels’ – the most spectacular of the many large tracts of pristine wilderness in Alaska – from despoilment by natural – resource developers and exploiters of the native Eskimo.” Udall also fought to preserve Manassas Battlefield National Park and in 1982 he was an advocate for a nuclear waste act.
Udall set his political sights on higher office–without much success. In 1976, he announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. He finished second to Jimmy Carter and returned to the House. Also in the 1970s he twice sought the Speakership of the House and the position of the majority leader.
Udall authored several books, including Education of a Congressman: The Newsletters of Morris K. Udall, The Job of a Congressman and Too Funny to be President. The latter is a chronicle of some of his achievements and his comedic flair. Udall believed in the mediating power of humor, once remarking, “Self-effacing humor can also be the best way for a politician to deal with any delicate subject.”
Udall’s environmental action earned him recognition. In 1986, he was awarded the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservationist of the Year after receiving a similar award from the National Park and Conservation Association in 1980. In 1992, after his resignation, Congress established the Morris K. Udall Scholarship and Excellence in National Environmental Policy Foundation Award, which is annually bestowed upon 55 college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue careers related to environmental policy. In 1996, President Bill Clinton presented Udall with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Udall was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in the late 1970s. After suffering a fall in which he broke a shoulder, several ribs and suffered a concussion, he resigned in January 1991, citing an inability to conduct a reelection campaign. Mo Udall died on December 11, 1998, in the Veterans Medical Center in Washington, D.C. of complications from Parkinson’s disease.His third wife Norma, four brothers and sisters, six children (Mark, Judith, Randolph, Anne, Bradley and Katherine), one stepson and seven grandchildren survive him.
Udall’s legacy in Congress can be measured by more than the environmental programs he sponsored. His son, Mark, was elected to represent Colorado in the 106th Congress. Mo’s nephew (Stewart’s son), Tom, also won election in the fall of 1998 to the House as a Congressman from New Mexico. Mo served as a pioneer in his commitment to the environment at a time when there was little knowledge or concern about its condition. He paved the way for Members of Congress today who share his concerns.
Originally Published: 2003