Mo Udall, quick-witted congressman, forced to retire

April 20, 1991|By David Hess | David Hess,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- If ridicule is the worst enemy of pompous politicians, then humor must be the best friend of successful ones. Otherwise, how could anyone ever explain Mo Udall?

After a 14-year struggle against Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder that robs even the sharpest minds and shrinks the most stalwart physiques, Morris K. Udall resigned yesterday after representing Arizona in the House of Representatives for 30 years.

"It is one of the saddest days I've known," said Representative David R. Obey, D-Wis., one of Mr. Udall's longtime allies.

But sadness is not the kind of emotion the 68-year-old Mr. Udall would recommend. His life, often lashed by adversity, has been one of unswerving optimism, self-targeted humor and good cheer.

He lost an eye in a childhood accident but later inveigled his way into the Army Air Corps in World War II and went on to play professional basketball with the Denver Nuggets before entering politics.

In troubled times, the 6-foot-5-inch Mr. Udall has invariably found a beacon of humor -- turning it on himself and basking in the light of his own travail.

In 1970, vying against the late Representative Hale Boggs, D-La., for the post of House majority leader, Mr. Udall and his supporters sported "MO" lapel pins as they entered the Democratic caucus. But when the tables turned in favor of Mr. Boggs, Mr. Udall gave a gracious concession speech and turned his pin upside down, to read "OW." Exit laughing.

He has even made light of the insidious and incurable disease that slowly but surely brought him down.

After he had been diagnosed as having Parkinson's, a scandal erupted in Congress over the purported romantic liaisons between some prominent House members and a lobbyist, Paula Parkinson.

"There are some similarities between my affliction and those affairs," Mr. Udall mused. "They both cause you to lose sleep, and they both give you the shakes."

As the chief architect of the independent U.S. Postal Service, Mr. Udall later came to rue his role in severing the agency from congressional control. During a debate one day over the federal budget deficit, Mr. Udall rose on the House floor and suggested that the problem be turned over to the Postal Service.

"That way," he said, "we'll slow it down and probably never see it again."

Spurning ardent supporters who wanted him to challenge President Jimmy Carter in the party primaries in 1980, Mr. Udall wistfully recalled his vainglorious effort four years earlier to best Mr. Carter in the 1976 primaries.

"If nominated I will run -- for the Mexican border," Mr. Udall told them. "If elected, I will fight extradition."

Of all the political trials that tested Mr. Udall's sense of humor, his abortive 1976 campaign against Mr. Carter was probably the toughest.

Underfinanced, outmanned and outmaneuvered, Mr. Udall still managed to finish second to Mr. Carter in a series of elections that broke his heart but left his sense of the ridiculous intact.

As other candidates streaked around the nation in sleek jets during that campaign, Mr. Udall and his threadbare contingent lumbered along in an ancient German-made plane Mr. Udall called "Hermann Goering's Revenge."

On one particularly hair-raising flight somewhere over the Midwest, the plane was engulfed by a savage storm. As Mr. Udall later recounted it, he went to the cockpit, learned the plane was lost and offered his services as an aviator. "I'm licensed to fly single-engine planes," he proudly announced to the harried pilot.

"This has got more than one engine," the pilot snapped at Mr. Udall. "As soon as we're down to one, you can take over."

Mr. Udall was elected in 1961 to succeed his older brother, Stewart, who was appointed secretary of the interior by President John F. Kennedy. Since then, Mr. Udall has scored major triumphs in fields ranging from the environment to campaign and civil service reform.

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