Mo better

Remembering Mo Udall, a truly decent man

Damn, life's a funny ol' female-dog, idn't she?
Here I am, back in Tucson, one of my favorite places in the U.S. of A., and also the place of one of my most bitter professional regrets.

I did a man wrong here one time.
I didn't mean to, and it didn't make much difference, but there it is. The man's name is Morris Udall, representative from Tucson, and the year was 1976.

Six--I think it was--Democrats were scrapping for the presidential nomination that year. Ol' Jerry Ford looked beatable. Among the less-likely contenders were Jimmy Carter, a former governor of Georgia with the charisma of a day-old pizza, and Mo Udall, an ace guy with the misfortune to be from Arizona (three electoral votes).

The New York Times Sunday Magazine was fixing to run profiles on each of these six candidates, and they called me to profile Udall--I think because I, in Texas, was the farthest-West journalist they'd ever heard of. Texas, Arizona--it all looks the same from New York.

In those days, I was what is known in our trade as "hungry," which is supposed to mean "feisty, ambitious, willin' to go after a story like a starvin' dog."

Actually, I was plain hungry: six years at The Texas Observer left me below the poverty line, and I jumped at that assignment.

So I came over to Arizona and investigated Mo Udall's life, times, finances, family life, psychological health, and public record back to Year Aught.

I'll tell you now what I should have told you then: Morris Udall is a man of exceptional decency, integrity, courage, honesty, and intelligence.

On top of that, he's funny. If you could have forced Congress to take a vote at that time just on the question of who was the finest human being then serving--secret ballot, no consequences, just vote your conscience--I swear to you that Udall would have won hands down.

And did I report this? Hell, no. I was looking for warts; I wanted dirt.
Besides, I was afraid of being conned, of looking like a naive hick. I dug through his campaign contributions. (I found union money! Do you know how brave you have to be to support unions in Arizona?) I dug through his psycho-history. (The Udalls are a famous Mormon family. Mo split from the church and became a Jack Mormon after commanding an all-black troop in the Army). I wrote about his being one-eyed. (At one point, he was a one-eyed professional basketball player--some handicap.)

Faced with the disgusting reality of a truly decent politician, I did my dead-level best to be nasty. I didn't cut him an inch of slack; I thought that was my job, the way they did it in the big leagues.

My grudging report that I hadn't been able to find anything actually wrong with Udall duly appeared in print. Imagine my surprise when The New York Times' famed political correspondent R.W. Apple followed my reserved appraisal of Udall with a puff piece about Jimmy Carter. (Johnny Apple, you know perfectly well that was a puff piece.)

Every venial sin of Udall's that I had held up to the merciless light of day, Apple glossed over gaily in the case of Carter. The profiles appeared from one Sunday to the next, but the politicians described in them were not judged by a single standard.

To put it mildly.
Well, Jimmy Carter turned out to be a man of character and decency, too--he just wasn't much of a politician, and Mo Udall was a good one.

My continuing regret is that what I wrote was accurate, but it wasn't true. I was trying so hard to prove I could be a major-league, hard-hitting journalist that I let the real story go hang itself.

The real story is the sheer decency of Morris Udall. When I am asked if there are any heroes left in politics, I always think of Udall. He's retired now, victim of a sad, slow, wasting disease.

I suppose you could say that Udall is to Arizona liberals what Barry Goldwater is to Arizona conservatives: an incurably honest man of principle.

Or you could say that Morris Udall is to Arizona liberals what Ev Mecham is to Arizona kooks.

I think he'd like to have it end with a joke.
As though political bias, racism, and inferred anti-Semitism weren't enough, Bob Dole has also exploited a weakness of his rival, Senator Phil Gramm.

Gramm would have been there firstest with the mostest in the Bash Hollywood Bowl had it not been for the unfortunate fact that somebody (let's hear it for Dole's oppo-research team) leaked that Gramm once invested $7,500 in a porno flick.

Sometimes that Bob Dole is just so deliciously wicked, one does have to chuckle.

Still, as I said when Dan Quayle brought all this up a few years ago: "He may be a doofus, but he has a point."

In truth, a lot of art is about sex and violence, but it can be treated with sensitivity, seriousness, beauty, and high purpose.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

 
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