Ed. note: Tales from the Trail is a column that will take you behind the scenes of politics to see some of the funny, and sometimes outright bizarre things that happen on the campaign trail, based on Howard Wilkinson's recollections of 43 years of covering politics.
There are an awful lot of people who knew Morris K. Udall – better known as "Mo" – who believe he would have made a great president of the United States.
The Arizona Democrat served in the U.S. House for 30 years until the effects of Parkinson's Disease forced him into retirement in 1991.
An unabashed liberal Democrat, Udall was well-liked and much respected on both sides of the aisle and was even called "Lincoln-esque" – mainly because of his height, six feet, five inches tall; his self-deprecating humor and his likeable manner. Conservative newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick once said of Udall that he was "too funny to be president."
Udall used Kilpatrick's line as the title of his autobiography after he ran for and lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.
Here are three things to know about Mo Udall:
- When he was six years old, he lost his eye when a friend's pocket knife slipped while they were trying to cut some string; and he ended up wearing a glass eye for the rest of his life.
- He tried to enlist in the Army during World War II and, for a while, fooled the people doing the eye exam by covering his glass eye every time he was told to alternate eyes. He was rejected at first, but later in the war, he was allowed into the Army, where he ended up commanding an all-black squadron as a captain in the Army Air Corps.
- After the war, he went to the University of Arizona, where he was a star basketball player. He played one year in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets. He started working on his law degree while in Denver and then returned to the University of Arizona, where he earned a law degree in 1949.
In 1976, he was one of the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, in a field that included former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. There had been as many as 10 candidates, but the field quickly narrowed to those four.
At the time of the Wisconsin primary in April, it looked as if Udall might be the favorite, but Carter edged him out and then followed a series of primaries where Udall consistently ran second to Carter.
Ohio's presidential primary was at the tail end of the primary season and, by that time, it was all but over for Udall.
But he was a gamer and he battled on in Ohio against the growing forces of Carter.
I was barely a year out of college that Spring and was working as a reporter at the Painesville Telegraph in Lake County, exactly 22 miles east of downtown Cleveland. The Telegraph no longer exists, although I deny having anything to do with its demise.
One day, I was at the Telegraph office and I got a call from the Udall campaign saying they were coming to Cleveland to start a statewide bus tour. Would you like to come along?
A 23-year-old wet-behind-the-ears reporter traveling his home state with a real live presidential candidate? You bet I would.
I talked the Telegraph editors into it; and off I went, traveling from big cities to small towns like Mount Vernon and Coschocton to Athens, home of Ohio University, the place where, a year earlier, I was a student journalist at the campus newspaper, The Post.
Traveling with Udall was a blast. It wasn't like traveling with most presidential candidates, where there was a wall between the traveling press and the candidate.
Mo Udall was with us the whole way – sitting around telling jokes, doing pull ups on a bar across the back end of bus, making cold cut sandwiches out of a well-stocked cooler.
Going to Athens and Ohio University was no happenstance.
Udall knew exactly what he was doing.
Recently, Ohio University's athletic department had told a young man named Mike Borden, a star high school player from Fairborn, that he couldn't play basketball on the junior varsity team, no matter how good he was in high school.
The reason? Mike Borden had one eye.
And the university had taken the recommendation of the American Medical Association that any person with only one of a pair of vital organs should be disqualified from contact sports.
The athletic department said they didn't want to take the chance of him injuring his good eye and being left blind for the rest of his life.
Udall had heard of this long before he got to Ohio; and had spoken out on the subject, encouraging Borden to keep trying.
When the bus pulled into Athens, the first stop was at some basketball courts on the edge of campus, where a large crowd had gathered to watch a unique event – a one-on-one basketball game between two players with two eyes between them.
"Mike, I could play this game pretty well when I was at Arizona and I even got a little time in the NBA,'' Udall told Borden. "Having a glass eye never stopped me. Don't let it stop you."
With a cheering crowd on hand, the two battled for about half an hour, with Borden walking away the victor – after all, his opponent was 44 and his basketball days were long behind him.
"Anybody here still think two guys with one eye each can't play basketball?,''
The crowd roared.
We all got back on the bus and settled into our seats.
"Well, that was good,'' Udall said with a grin. "I think we actually accomplished something today."
And, oh, by the way - it wasn't long after that Mike Borden was made a member in good standing of the Ohio University Bobcats junior varsity team, one eye and all.