Of Arizona is retiring from the House of...


April 20, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

MORRIS UDALL of Arizona is retiring from the House of Representatives. He was well known and well liked in political circles for his sense of humor.

He wrote a book on political humor in 1988, "Too Funny To Be President." It was largely a collection of other politicians' jokes, but it included some of his own as well and his rules for political humor.

One rule was tell self-deprecating jokes. He was good at that. It may have kept him from being nominated for president in 1976. He told this joke a lot that year: "I was in New Hampshire. My advance woman urged me to shake a few hands in the nearby barbershop. I stuck my head in the door and blurted, 'Mo Udall! I'm running for president!'

"The barber replied, 'Yeah, I know. We were laughing about it just this morning.' "

It may be unfair, but some voters are turned off by that. Not many, but some. Mo Udall didn't need but a few more Democrats in 1976 to have become the presidential nominee. He had a showdown primary with Jimmy Carter in Wisconsin. Liberal versus conservative. Carter won by less than 1 percent of the vote. If Udall had been more serious -- at least about the presidency -- he might have won the nomination. Of course, he would have lost the election. Carter carried 10 of the 11 Southern states to win narrowly. Udall couldn't have done that. He was too funny to be the nominee, but too liberal to be president.

* * * When Sen. John Heinz, the Pittsburgh pickle heir, was killed in a plane crash this month, there was one more rich man in heaven and one less in the Senate. He was one of over 30 millionaire senators. Most are multi-millionaires. Heinz was worth at least a half a billion dollars. He was a well-respected moderate Republican. Fine senator. But I agree with Fred Barnes of The New Republic that there is something very wrong with a third of a branch of government being rich men.

One thing that is wrong is that many got elected by their riches. Heinz was one of those. He spent nearly $3 million of his own money to win election in 1976. How is that different from "buying" Senate seats a la the "Millionaires' Club" days of the corrupt 1890s? (Heinz, typically, didn't spend a penny of his own money to get re-elected. You only have to buy a Senate seat once.)

* * * I guess Heinz is in heaven, but maybe not. Mo Udall liked to tell this story: "A pope and a senator were killed in the same air crash. When they arrived at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter took the senator to a luxurious 20-room mansion and said, 'Senator, this is your home. Enjoy it, and if you need anything, please call us at once.' St. Peter then escorted the pope to his new quarters, a studio apartment. Puzzled, the pope said, 'I don't understand. You gave that politician a fine mansion and settled me in this little apartment.' St. Peter explained, 'You are pope No. 186 we have received in heaven, but this is our first senator.' "

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