Watch CBSN Live

Morris Udall Dead At 76

Former Rep. Morris K. Udall, a 30-year congressman who championed environmental causes and wryly lamented that he was too funny to be president, has died after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. He was 76.

Udall died late Saturday at the U.S. Veterans Medical Center in Washington, according to Chris Helms, head of a Udall family foundation in Tucson, Ariz.

A Democrat and member of one of Arizona's best-known families, Udall remained one of the most consistent voices of liberalism in the House, whatever the political winds sweeping the country.

"Morris Udall represents everything a lawmaker should be," President Clinton said in 1996, when he awarded Udall a Presidential Medal of Freedom. "His work is a gift to all Americans." Udall was unable to attend the Washington ceremony because of poor health.

During the 1970s, he failed in two tries to win election as speaker of the House, and he ran unsuccessfully in 1976 as a liberal alternative to Jimmy Carter in the Democratic presidential primaries.

Known as "Mo," Udall was a Lincolnesque figure with a self-deprecating wit and easy manner. He was in demand as a master of ceremonies at many Washington events, where his humor often was the highlight of an evening.

Last month, his son, Mark Udall, was elected to Congress from Colorado, and his nephew, Tom Udall, was elected to Congress from New Mexico.

Mo Udall's health had deteriorated markedly in recent years as a result of arthritis and progressive worsening of Parkinson's disease, a treatable but incurable degenerative neurological illness that causes tremors and muscular rigidity.

He announced his 1990 re-election bid by saying, "I stand before you today with a painful old back, loaded with arthritis, one eye but, considering the alternative, I feel pretty damn good."

But in January 1991, Udall broke a shoulder and some ribs and suffered a concussion in falling down stairs at his home in Arlington, Va. In April 1991, he announced his resignation from Congress, effective the following month. He achieved notable successes in the House, though he never moved into the highest echelons of power and his political career was marked by disappointment.

One story he told concerned walking into a New Hampshire barbershop, introducing himself and saying he had just announced his candidacy for president. He said the barber replied, "We were just laughing about it this morning."

He withdrew from the race in time to win re-election to the House.

Udall was particularly effective as chairman of the Interior Committee, a position he had held since 1976. He shepherded passage of a measure to designate 8 million acres of federal lands as wilderness in 1984; a ban on development on millions of acres in Alaska in 1980; strip-mining control legislation in 1977; and a nuclear waste management policy in 1982.

In other areas, he was a leader i the passage of civil service reforms to promote merit pay and more flexibility for managers, and he sponsored campaign finance reform laws that Congress adopted in 1974. He also sponsored legislation on presidential primaries and newspaper ownership, and dozens of bills to benefit Indians.

Among what Udall considered his crowning congressional achievements was the Central Arizona Project, a multibillion-dollar series of aqueducts to carry Colorado River water from the California border to Phoenix and Tucson.

Udall practiced law with his brother, Stewart, after graduating from the University of Arizona law school in 1949. He later served as Pima County attorney.

When Stewart, then a congressman, was tapped to serve as President Kennedy's secretary of the interior in 1961, Morris ran for the seat in a special election. Supporting such Kennedy positions as federal aid to education and medical care for the aged, he won in a close race.

Udall easily kept his seat in successive elections, including in 1982 when redistricting split up his hometown of Tucson. His district extended north to Phoenix and west to Yuma. In his last election, in November 1990, he received 66 percent of the vote.

Udall was born June 15, 1922, in St. Johns, Ariz. He was one of six children in a pioneer Mormon family, though he was not active in the church in his adult years. His father, Levi Udall, was chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, and his mother, Louise, was active in civic affairs.

Udall joined the U.S. Army Air Corps as a private in 1942 after concealing that he had lost an eye as a result of a childhood accident. After his discharge as a captain in 1946, he became a basketball star for the University of Arizona and was elected student body president. He briefly played for the Denver Nuggets.

Udall and his first wife, Patricia, had six children: Mark, Judith, Randolph, Anne, Bradley and Katherine. They divorced in 1966. His second wife, Ella, whom he married in 1968, killed herself in August 1988. He married Norma Gilbert a year later.

Udall wrote the 1988 book, Too Funny to be President, a tome culled from 1,200 pages of notes compiled over his congressional career.

Written by Joseph Schuman
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed