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Morris K. Udall

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Benjamin Krueger, Ph.D.

University of Nevada, Reno

Morris K. Udall (1922-1998) may not be Arizona’s most remembered orator, but his thirty-year career as a Congressional representative and unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1976 left a lasting rhetorical imprint on the state. An examination of Udall’s legacy can thus provide new insights into Arizona history. 

A 1985 portrait of Mo Udall by Everett Raymond Kinstler, used under public domain.

Udall was born on June 15, 1922 in St. Johns, Arizona, a tiny town on the high desert plains of Apache County. Like most of the town, the Udalls were Mormons. From that vantage point, it seemed strange for the Udalls to be Democrats. Although a substantial portion of LDS voters had been Democrats in the nineteenth century, most had shifted their allegiances to the Republican Party by the beginning of the twentieth century. With the exception of Morris’s father Levi, most of the Udall clan were Republicans (Carson and Johnson xiv). Even Morris himself acknowledged that his political background was unusual, once remarking that “”I’m a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona, and you can’t have a higher handicap than that” (Severo B9).

Udall won election to Congress in 1961, filling the seat vacated by his brother Stewart, who had resigned to become John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Interior. He won re-election to fourteen consecutive terms, retiring in 1991.  Unlike many political orators, Udall is not remembered for a single definitive speech. Instead, he became famous for a distinct rhetorical style on the campaign trail and in Congress that sounded populist themes distrustful of the Washington elite and that relied on a folksy sense of humor.

Perhaps due to his rural roots, Udall embraced a populist rhetorical style. As an early as the mid-1960s, Udall was a supporter of campaign finance reform, and supported legislation that would have required members of Congress to file income statements, publicly disclose all campaign contributions and expenditures, and to adhere to a code of ethics (Carson and Johnson 74). Udall also warned against the effects of concentrated media ownership, sponsoring the Independent Local Newspaper Act of 1977 (Carson and Johnson 80). Through his support for such initiatives, Udall seemed determined to show that he was more beholden to his constituents in rural Arizona than he was to the Democratic Party or the Washington D.C. social establishment. Yet Udall did not shy away from controversial issues and spoke forcefully against President Richard Nixon’s Cambodian incursion in April 1970.

Secondly, Udall attracted attention folksy and dry sense of humor. While on the campaign trail in Iowa in 1976, Udall would ask audience the difference between a tractor and a pigeon, leading to the punchline: “the pigeon . . .  can still make a deposit on a tractor” (Udall 231). For his witty one-liners, Washington Post reporter David Broder dubbed him “too funny to be president.” Udall’s folksy and witty style helped him to gain traction against Jimmy Carter during the 1976 primary election season. Despite a slow start, Udall placed second in the key New Hampshire primary and looked poised to become the Democratic establishment’s alternative to Carter. Ultimately, Carter’s momentum was too much overcome. Udall competed in twenty-two primaries or caucuses, and lost every single one (Carson and Johnson 172). For his tenacity, though, some political commentators dubbed him “second-place Mo.”

Udall’s career leaves behind a unique legacy for Arizona’s public leaders. After the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, Democrats in Arizona became somewhat of an endangered species. By the mid-2000s, Arizona Democrats had regained some momentum, winning the gubernatorial elections of 2002 and 2006. By 2008, Democrats held four of Arizona’s eight congressional districts. Since that time Democrats have continued to make important gains in the state and win a number of House, Senate, and Gubernatorial seats. Udall’s oratory serves as an exemplar of how Democrats can seize the populist mantle in the Intermountain West and continue to be a competitive political force in the region.

Works Cited

Carson, Donald W. and Johnson, James W. Mo: The Life and Times of Morris K. Udall. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001.

Severo, Richard R. “Morris K. Udall, Fiercely Liberal Congressman, Dies at 76.” New York Times. 14 December 1998, p. B9.

Udall, Morris K. Too Funny to be President. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988.

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