The Mormon Who Was Almost President

When Mitt Romney takes the stage in Tampa this week to accept the nomination of the Republican Party, it will be an historic moment for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Perhaps not as historic in the grand sense as the first Catholic nominee was, or African-American nominee was, or female nominee will be, but anticipated and relished nonetheless.

As a rabid fan of science fiction, comic books, and most everything else in the nerdosphere, one of my favorite tropes or concepts is that of the parallel or alternate universe. This is the idea that somewhere there exists an identical earth except some things are radically different. This was explored in the 1990’s tv show Sliders, numerous episodes of Star Trek, the Futurama episode “The Farnsworth Parabox,” and countless other tv shows, serials, comic books, etc.
I’d like to explore one such universe today– the one where in 1976, but for the votes of a few thousand people in Wisconsin, our first LDS President was actually elected over 35 years ago.

the mormon who would be president

I’m speaking, of course, of Morris King, or “Mo”, Udall.  Udall and his brother Stewart were sometimes referred to as “The Mormon Kennedys”– and, living up to that moniker, both have sons currently serving as Senators in the US Senate from New Mexico and Colorado. While Mo was an unorthodox Mormon and outspoken on his opposition to the church’s policies prior to 1978 not extending the Priesthood to African Americans and later over the ERA, he was still identified by his Mormon roots and upbringing– and certainly his character was undeniably Mormon.

Mo Udall was known for his kindness and his humor– even derided by a reporter for being “Too funny to be President,” that may have proven to be the case. He was also known for his strong sense of ethics and dedication to environmental causes, both of which have gained him a special place in my heart.

He championed post-Watergate campaign finance reforms, clamped down on Congressional perks like unlimited franking (free use of the post office by members of Congress) for political purposes, and reformed the civil service. He was a dogged critic and challenger of the Congressional seniority system, helping usher in numerous reforms that ensured Congressional chairmanships and leadership positions were determined by merit and votes as much as seniority.

He also doubled the size of the national parks, creating parks like Denali and Glacier Bay in Alaska. That Arctic National Wildlife Refuge everyone wants to “drill, baby, drill” on? He was reponsible for putting it aside as protected wilderness. We should be in awe, not just as treehuggers, but even the most red-blooded conservative capitalist can be happy with the $1 billion a year Alaskan tourism industry generated by these parks.

He was one of the primary authors of the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, an incredibly important piece of legislation still used today. It prevents water contamination from toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, selenium that contaminate waters downstream from coal and other mining operations.  Indeed, so synonymous is his name with environmental concerns that it is attached to a scholarship available for students of environmental policy.

Udall was also a reliable lieutenant, acting as a floor whip for some of the most important legislation of the last century: The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare expansion and Medicaid. Yes, he helped pass all of those.

 

the campaign trail

And so, in 1976 Mo Udall set out to run for President. He was, in fact, an early frontrunner, beating out the little-known peanut farmer and Governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter in recognition and gravitas. Udall was fond of telling a story, where he walked up to two gentlemen in Keene, NH and told them he was running for President. “Yes, we were just laughing about that,” they replied.

Carter eked out wins in Iowa and New Hampshire against a field of 9 other opponents. By the time of the Wisconsin Primary on April 6, 1976, Udall had come in second place to Carter in many states and was the supposed frontrunner. Indeed, newspapers printed that Udall had won the primary. . .but as the count went on, Carter surpassed Udall, beating him by a mere 7,500 votes and earning just a single delegate more than Udall.

A month later in Michigan, Udall and Carter nearly tied, each getting 43% of the vote. But Carter’s increasing momentum and strength in the South ended the Udall campaign. Udall came in second place in the Democratic Convention in New York City. But for 7,500 votes going the other way, Udall’s win in Wisconsin would have likely given him the momentum to win. Indeed, later in the race as Carter’s victory became apparent and Udall had dropped out, insurgents like Idaho Senator Frank Church and California Governor Jerry Brown jumped in the race under the “ABC” banner — “Anybody But Carter.” Church and Brown won the primaries throughout the West, a natural constituency for Udall, if only he’d stayed in.

 

a religious test for office?

You know what was hardly an issue, similarly to how it was not an issue when Mitt Romney’s father George ran for President in 1964? Religion. One single incident occurred– the Mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, criticized Udall for his religion because of the LDS church’s stance on allowing African Americans to bear the priesthood. And the amazing thing? Udall agreed with him, and brought up his outspoken criticism he had leveled against church leadership in the past.

Now, remember, this was May of 1976. It would be only two years later– June 8, 1978, — when LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball would release the official declaration that all worthy males would enjoy the blessings of the Priesthood in the LDS Church. I can’t help but wonder, and this is pure conjecture on my part, if our church leaders weren’t watching the race and heard those attacks in the Michigan Primary.

Was there introspection? Thoughtful prayer and meditation? That maybe, just maybe, the marginalization of African American members was an issue that had prevented Mo Udall from ascending to the highest office in the land? Or to see in the brightest light of day that good men like Udall were disassociating from the church over issues like this. Again, pure speculation on my part, but I don’t see how this could not be something that weighed on the mind of church leadership and caused them to seek greater light and knowledge to replace previous church practice. Just as the same way the 2008 Romney campaign shed light on the fact that most Americans misunderstand Mormonism, causing the church to launch campaigns like “And I’m a Mormon”, this may have been a teachable moment in our history.

But that single incident aside, the fact that Udall was LDS was by and large not an issue in the campaign. Certainly no one cared about putting pictures of his underwear on the nightly news broadcast. No one said he wasn’t a Christian or made ridiculous assertions about the nature of his faith. And yet these were commonplace both in the 2008 and 2012 primaries.

And this backwards step is ultimately something very, very troubling that I think we, as Americans, not as Mormons or Evangelicals or Muslims or Jews or Democrats or Republicans, must deal with. Our Constitution wisely prohibits religious tests to hold office. If this was good enough for the writers of our Constitution, we ought not go creating a de facto religious test for office today. Otherwise, all we are doing is creating a list of “safe” faiths and “unacceptable” faiths. If such a token acceptance of a religion is all it takes to be qualified for office, then all the craven and power-hungry of the world have to do is play that role– if I want to be elected, I should go to this church, not that church, and poll-test the likeability of each faith the way I would a campaign commercial or choose a necktie with a fashion consultant. If we can be that easily deceived, and mistake church membership for true character, we deserve the terrible leaders we elect. We ought to judge, not on what church someone goes to, but how their policies would affect our lives and the rest of the country.

All that being said, it is depressing to me that within my lifetime we have retrogressed. I do have hopes that Romney’s candidacy, if nothing else, does shatter that myth that you must be a Protestant or Catholic to be President of these United States, the same way a Udall nomination 36 years ago would have as well.

 

the alternate udall universe

So, let’s pretend those 7,500 Wisconsinites voted for Udall, or voted for Scoop Jackson, or any of the other nominees. Let’s pretend Udall won, and his momentum carried him to be neck and neck with Carter up through the time where an “ABC” movement could have coalesced around him. I posit that but for those 7,500 Wisconsin votes and that single delegate, Mo Udall would have been nominated by the Democratic Party in 1976 and elected President, beating out a bumbling Gerald Ford.

Not only would that have put to bed the myth that you can’t be LDS and President, but also the myth that you can’t be Mormon and a Democrat (even a lapsed and iconoclastic one like Mo Udall). Indeed,the current generation of Udalls and, of course, Harry Reid, Larry Echohawk, and others, provide a great example of what LDS church members can do to serve their fellow man through government service.

But would life be any different? In that alternate universe, what might have happened? Let’s assume for all intents and purposes that Udall stepped down after one term after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, and his Vice President, Jimmy Carter, was challenged by Ronald Reagan in 1976 and life after January 1, 1981 was more or less as we remember it. What might have happened in a Udall Presidency?

There were continued reforms necessary with campaign finance in the wake of the 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v Valeo, which included that first step in the slippery slope that “money is speech” (a rationale later used in the disastrous Citizens United case just a few years ago).  Because of Udall’s strong ethics and a real love of the policy wonkish side of campaign finance, it’s likely we would have instituted greater reforms under his leadership: possibly even extending public financing to Congressional races, a fight his son and nephew continue today as co-sponsors of the DISCLOSE Act and Fair Elections Now Acts.

Facing the energy crisis and oil embargo of the late 70s, Mo Udall does not seem the type to go on television to address the nation, criticize them for their malaise as a country, and offer solutions like putting on a sweater to save on heating bills. Instead, being known for his warmth and humor, he might have offered solutions that were far easier to swallow, even if he merely provided a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Given his conservation and environmental credentials, he likely would have made it a top priority to wean our country off of oil and gasoline. Considering we are still grappling with the exact same issue today, that would be welcome news. However, more than likely, Udall could have only accelerated our progress, not single-handedly broken our addiction to oil in 4 scant years.

How would Udall have dealt with the Russians and strategic arms reductions? How would he have reacted to the Iranian hostage crisis? It’s impossible to say, but one of Udall’s Democratic Congressional colleagues,  Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin, wrote in his memoirs that “Udall could have ended the Cold War in 1979 rather than ten years later—by agreeing to help the Russians reconstruct their society and economy in return for their dissolution of communism and their empire. He could have avoided the heavyhanded money tightening, tax cutting, military spending, and poor-people bashing of the Reagan years.”

 

udall’s real legacy

Even not being elected President, Udall accomplished more than most men could hope for in a lifetime. His legislative achievements are unmatched by the vast majority of members of Congress. But beyond his legacy of his family, his name, his conservation and environmental efforts, I believe the greatest lesson we can learn from Mo Udall is one of tone and dignity.

To be sure, he was a fighter. From almost Day 1, he picked fights with Democratic Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. He often lost, but came back from his losses pleasant and never bitter. After losing a race for House Majority Leader, and losing badly, he removed his campaign pin that read “MO” and turned it upside down to read “OW.”

Believe it or not, one of Udall’s greatest friends in politics was fellow Arizonan, arch-conservative and 1964 Republican nominee Barry Goldwater. Such a friendship seems almost impossible in today’s hyper-partisan climate. Can you imagine Howard Dean and Paul Ryan hanging out? Hardly.
It’s fun to imagine what might have been.  But more important is what we can do here and now. To continue Udall’s legacy, it is a challenge for each of us to leave the world better than we found it, disagree without being disagreeable, and always bring the highest level of ethics to our work, especially as it relates to politics. I hope we can reflect on this during this week’s and next’s party conventions and possibly look forward to when a Mormon Democrat can accept her or his party’s nomination and win the White House.

About the author

I'm like the Johnny Cash song "I've Been Everywhere"-- born in San Diego and living in both Southern and Northern California, Delaware, Northern Virginia, Provo, Utah, a two year stint in the Russia, Rostov-na-Donu mission, then back to Provo, The Bronx, New York City, and finally landing in Austin, TX. I received a Bachelor's degree in political science from BYU with a minor in Russian Studies and a Master's program at Fordham University in Elections and Campaign Management.