Thursday, June 15, 2006

Mo for President

One of Mo Udall's favorite stories was about the time he walked up to a pair of elderly men in Keene, New Hampshire to shake their hands, tell them his name was Mo Udall and that he was running for president. "We were just laughing about that," they told him, according to Udall.

U.S. congressman Morris K. Udall was born on this day in 1922 in St. Johns, Arizona. The son of an Arizona Supreme Court justice, Mo Udall lost an eye in an accident when he was 6, but that didn't stop him from starting as a forward for the NBA's Denver Nuggets in 1949 (he grew to 6'-5"in the meantime) after graduating from University of Arizona Law School. He retired from basketball after one season and opened a law firm in Tucson with his brother Stewart, and until 1961 he practiced law, serving a stint as county attorney and as a labor law professor.

In 1961 he was elected to Congress from the Tucson area as a Democrat, succeeding brother Stewart who left Congress to become John Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior. After a single term he became a mentor to newer congressmen, schooling them in the arcane House rules while advocating reform of the House seniority system. Soon he became a leading liberal voice in the House, denouncing U.S. involvement in Vietnam as early as 1967 and losing in maverick bids for the speakership against old-line incumbent John McCormack and for majority leader against Hale Boggs. His liberal principles even led him to leave the Mormon Church due to his opposition to what he perceived as its policies of racial exclusion.

At the urging of congressional colleagues, Udall announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in 1976. Despite a strong following which led to his placing second in the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Michigan primaries and second overall in delegates to the eventual nominee, Jimmy Carter, Udall kept his campaign light with his self-deprecating, Lincolnesque sense of humor.

After his unsuccessful presidential bid, he originated much significant environmental legislation -- including strip mining reforms, the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, and a 1982 nuclear waste act -- and succeeded in adding 8 million acres to the federal wilderness system, as well as serving as one of the Reagan Administration's sharpest critics on environmental issues and Central American policies. In 1988, three years before retiring from Congress, he published his autobiography, Too Funny to be President. He died on December 12, 1998 in Washington, D.C., a victim of Parkinson's Disease.

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