Washington -- THE NIGHT before the 1976 Democratic National Convention opened in New York, we asked Rep. Morris K. Udall if he had indulged himself by wondering what might have happened if he had just done one or two things differently in competing with Jimmy Carter for the presidential nomination. After all, Udall had finished second to Carter in seven primaries, and close enough in several of them so that even minor changes might have altered the balance of power between them.
But Mo Udall wouldn't play the "what if" game. "Sure," he said, "There are things I could have done differently. But then Carter would have done some things differently, too. It wouldn't have meant I'd beat him."
It was this sense of perspective that made Mo Udall, now retiring after 30 years in the House, so admired and liked by both other politicians and political reporters. As ambitious for the presidency as he had been and as disappointed as he was to have failed, Udall was able to accept the hand he had been dealt.
In the days since his retirement was announced, reams of stories have been written about his self-deprecating wit. The classic Udall story was the one he told about going into a barbershop in New Hampshire and announcing, "Hi, I'm Morris Udall and I'm running for president." To which, according to Udall, the barber replied: "Yep, we know. We were just laughing about that this morning."
But Udall's most admirable quality was his ability to keep things in proper perspective. He wanted very much to win but he never imagined the republic would not survive without him. And he conducted himself in a way that kept that perspective. When he spoke to an audience, there always seemed to be another Udall standing off in the corner watching him and preparing to shake his head disapprovingly if he lapsed into cheap politics.
Competing in Michigan during that 1976 campaign Udall began using some uncharacteristically gimmicky tactics. When a columnist wrote a piece saying so, Udall invited him to a 7 a.m. breakfast to straighten the matter out. Udall ordered his eggs, then said: "They tell me I'm supposed to give you hell about that column, but I guess I deserved it, so I won't bother. Let's eat."
In the House campaign of 1978, two years after his try for the presidency, Udall faced unusually strong opposition. His campaign for the presidency had made him a prime target for Republicans determined to cut this national Democrat down to size in an essentially conservative state. He found himself having to defend his record on issues that had never been raised in previous campaigns that had centered largely on such Arizona-specific questions as getting enough water from the Colorado River.
But Udall accepted the new role in which he had been cast with his usual understanding. After one particularly trying day of fending off voters at meetings and then on a radio call-in program, Udall turned to a reporter, raised his glass and said with mock gravity: "They have discovered I am a liberal. The well-kept secret is out."
In the House Udall made a remarkable record both on the environmental issues that came before the Interior Committee he chaired and on political reform questions. And he won the affection of his colleagues because he always managed to walk with the liberal goo-goos -- a term applied to earnest "good
government" types -- without becoming sanctimonious himself.
But reporters will remember him best for the grace with which he accepted defeat. The high point of his campaign against Carter came in the Wisconsin primary, when he went to bed while returns showed him leading comfortably. "It looks like we are winners tonight," he said with a broad grin. But the late returns from western Wisconsin gave the edge to Carter and denied Udall the upset that could have changed the course of the whole campaign. And Udall took it with his usual elan, telling reporters the following morning: "You may amend my statement of last night and insert the word 'losers' where I had 'winners.'"
Udall never won the big one. And, at 68, the deterioration of his health has forced him off the political stage he adorned for so long and out of the House of Representatives he so enjoyed. But no one who knows him would ever think of Mo Udall as anything but one of the winners in American politics.