Morris Udall, 1922-1998

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To paraphrase another Arizona legislator, humor in the defense of politics is no vice. On the other hand, it can take you only so far in national politics. Just ask Bob Dole, a genuinely funny man. And just ask Morris Udall, the 30-year congressman and presidential wannabe who died Sunday at the age of 76 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. His quick, self-deprecating wit helped Udall make it through a series of disappointments while trying for higher office, including a disastrous attempt at the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. A story Udall told for years afterward had the eager candidate walking into a New Hampshire barbershop and announcing he is running for president. The barber replies, "We were just laughing about it this morning."

Freed of the ambition for higher office, Udall became a particularly effective chairman of the House Interior Committee, a position he held from 1976 until he left Congress. In a real sense, he is also responsible for much of the face of modern Arizona. He shepherded through Congress the massive Central Arizona Project, a series of aqueducts from the Colorado River that provided the water that grew Tucson and Phoenix into the megalopolises they are today.

Still, as benefits a guy who briefly played pro basketball with the old Denver Nuggets, Udall never lost his sense of humor -- even in the toughest of times. Neither did his friends. "Mo Udall wanted to run for president in the worst way," pal David Broder once quipped, "and he did."