Seattle, WA. By all accounts, including his own, Stewart Lee Udall (1920-2010) was an unabashed liberal. And without doubt, he believed that government could improve lives, a philosophy that came from watching the New Deal transform his hometown of St. Johns, Arizona, bringing electricity and running water to scores of poor ranchers and farmers. This belief motivated his long public service as the Interior Secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and in recognition of his influence, his name now adorns the Department of the Interior building in Washington D.C.

But after a year of research into Udall’s life and work to develop my upcoming documentary film, Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty, I have come to believe that Udall was actually in many ways, a conservative whose creative ideas may help point America’s way forward in a turbulent, polarized, and destructive time. Above all, Udall was devoted to conserving the land and the beauty of the American landscape. He believed they were fragile, endangered by so-called “progress.” Our future was dependent on their care and protection.

Those who knew him well often describe Udall as a “Renaissance man.” He was an enormously complex figure with a wide range of interests and expertise. “Of all the people who have served the United States in an executive capacity, only Thomas Jefferson exceeded Stewart Udall in so successfully applying all of his varied interests and skills in service to America,” says historian Patty Limerick. I think of him as a model for what a public servant can, and should, be.

His life’s trajectory was, perhaps, a surprising one for a boy who grew up in a Mormon ranching family in a tiny hamlet on the high, dry Arizona desert. But at an early age, Stewart was taken by the beauty of the land. “To a young boy,” he wrote, “the ponderosa-pine-clad mountains beyond our green fields beckoned with ineffable promise. A few trips up there—to cut fence posts and fish for trout—hooked me on wilderness for life.” His love of learning was stirred by a mother who introduced him to art, poetry, and classical music. “Stewart had a funny habit as a kid,” his younger brother Burr, now 91, told me. “He learned a new word every day and drove the entire family crazy by repeating it over and over again. He was also a terrible farmer so it’s good that he did what he did.”

What he “did” was provide the leadership for most of the environmental legislation Americans now take for granted. An advocate for a host of new national parks and monuments, Udall’s legacy also includes dozens of protections for America’s land, air, and water. “In government,” historian Curt Meine told me, “Udall represented both the culmination of the old era of ‘conservation’ and the transformational figure for the new environmental movement, with its broader focus on the larger web of life.” He was very influenced by the ecological views expressed by naturalist Aldo Leopold in Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac. Udall even recorded part of it as an audio book, including these lines: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

The sixties were a time when the environmental movement in America grew into adulthood, a time when American government was not yet so polarized, when big ideas could still capture bipartisan attention, when Americans awoke to the unfolding destruction of paradise and sought to stop it. In the halls of government at least, Udall was its leading prophet. “He was a man ahead of his time,” our newly-appointed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told me. “I never knew him personally but his legacy lives on.” Haaland, our first Native American Interior Secretary, hopes to carry that legacy forward in the next decade.

A Passion for Justice

Udall as a University of Arizona basketball player

The cause of racial justice was a constant throughout Stew’s public life, a passion stirred by his father, Levi, a rancher, lawyer, and Mormon bishop. While Stew was in law school, his father wrote the 1948 Arizona Supreme Court ruling that first gave Native Americans the right to vote in the state. Earlier, Stew served as a “waist gunner” on a B-24 bomber on 50 missions during World War II. He, and his brother Mo, were angered by the fact that the Army was still segregated during the War, considering it a violation of America’s promise of equality under the law. Returning to Tucson after the War, the brothers joined the local NAACP. Basketball stars at the University of Arizona, they were dismayed to find Jim Crow policies there too—Blacks could not eat in the student cafeteria. So the Udalls staged a successful protest, inviting Black friends to join them there for lunch.

Udall was elected to Congress in 1954, serving three terms before Kennedy asked him to join the Cabinet. As Interior Secretary, he discovered that there were no African American rangers in our national parks. He quickly established a program to recruit students from traditionally Black universities and hire them in the parks. During his service as Interior Secretary, he also broke publicly with the faith of his fathers, openly challenging the Mormon Church’s ban on Blacks in its priesthood.

Udall understood that America’s indigenous peoples were also victims of discrimination. He’d grown up near the Apache and Navajo reservations. He knew many tribes viewed the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an alien force that controlled their resources, allowed non-Indians to usurp their lands, and sent their children to schools that denied their cultures, languages, and traditions. Seeking to increase tribal self-determination, he chose Robert Bennett, an Oneida tribal member as BIA director, the first Indian to lead the Bureau since the administration of Ulysses Grant.

Advocate for the Arts and World Peace

Udall’s stint at Interior got off to a rocky start. “Stewart’s weaknesses were overzealousness, impatience,” says biographer Thomas Smith. “He thought that he could get things done much quicker than what was politically realistic. And he kind of disrespected the old guard because they weren’t moving fast enough on issues.” His informal, direct, country style played poorly with the East Coast elite who made up much of Kennedy’s cabinet. But he surprised everyone with a campaign to bring arts and high-brow culture into Washington political life, something not expected of a rural Westerner. His efforts won praise from Jackie Kennedy and respect from the Washington press. He was greatly assisted in this by his wife Lee, who used empty space in the Interior Department to showcase American Indian arts and the work of masters like Ansel Adams.

Stewart and Lee Udall with Robert Frost

Udall also stepped outside his Interior role by bringing poet Robert Frost with him to the USSR to talk about reducing nuclear weapons with Russian premier Khrushchev. He took his conservation message around the world, speaking to receptive audiences In Africa, Asia, and Latin America. After he climbed Kilimanjaro, the 19,300-foot apex of Africa, the Kenyan press called him “the most vigorous member of the vigorous New Frontier.”

The Politics of Beauty

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Udall expected to be fired by President Johnson. After all, he had campaigned hard for Kennedy against Johnson in 1960 and persuaded Arizona’s convention delegates to throw all their support to the architect of Camelot. But Johnson kept Udall on, and Johnson’s own rural background growing up on a Texas ranch was fertile soil for Udall’s ideas. In 1964, Udall persuaded Johnson’s wife Lady Bird to accompany him on a tour of the West. Rafting down the Snake River in the Grand Tetons, he encouraged her to make a name for herself as a conservationist. “He was an excellent salesman,” she wrote later. “And he convinced me—this was for me!” “He really converted her to an environmentalist,” says biographer Smith, “and really launched her Beautification campaign. ‘Let’s beautify American cities. Let’s beautify the American countryside. Let’s get rid of billboards and junkyards and all this trash that we see. Let’s make America beautiful again.’”

Meanwhile, with support from Johnson, Udall was pushing other measures through Congress—the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which used fees on fossil fuel production to finance parks, trails, and pollution control in many American communities; the Wilderness Act, nearly 30 years in the making; endangered species protection; clean air and water legislation; limits on pesticide use; strip mining reclamation requirements. These were bipartisan efforts, and some Republicans, including Pennsylvania Representative John P. Saylor, were more supportive than Udall’s Democratic colleagues. “Bipartisanship was much more prevalent in the 50s, 60s and even 70s than it is today,” Smith says.

Udall never got all he wanted, but he believed in the adage that half a loaf was better than none at all. And he cared at least as much about a change in American values as he did about specific legislation. He hoped for a shift away from the dominant American dream of consumerism and economic growth and toward frugality, careful stewardship of resources, and quality of life. He led by example. “Stewart Udall lived in a very simple way,” his former aide Sharon Francis told me. “He wasn’t attracted to material items. He traveled with a briefcase and whatever he needed, like a change of shirt, would go into the briefcase with his papers. But he did not need luggage.”

In a 1968 book, 1976: Agenda for Tomorrow, Udall advocated what he called “the economics of beauty.” An increasing gross national product,” he wrote, “has become the Holy Grail, and most of the economists who are its keepers have no concern for the economics of beauty.” He shared the view of Russian writers Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn that beauty would save the world. What about poet Yevtushenko’s rejoinder, “Ah, but who will save beauty?” Udall would. If he could.

Even in Udall’s day, there were those who argued that his emphasis on beauty, his “Politics of Beauty,” as it might well have been called, was a distraction from more pressing issues like poverty and racism. So when Lyndon Johnson, with encouragement from Udall, included a call for the protection of beauty from “unbridled growth” in his 1964 Great Society speech, Democratic leaders of the House and Senate encouraged Johnson to drop those words from his message. But Johnson refused.

“A few years ago,” Johnson told University of Michigan students, in words clearly suggested by Udall, “we were greatly concerned about the ‘Ugly American.’ Today we must act to prevent an ugly America. For once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”

Beauty was the main theme of Udall’s politics—beauty of the land, art, human relations, cities, culture, even conversation. Perhaps the Navajo term hozho best captures his philosophy. It has been described as “a complex philosophical, religious aesthetic, roughly translated as beauty.” “I feel like the politics of beauty is still there,” says Interior Secretary Haaland, “and it’s up to us to keep it alive. I was raised by two parents who felt I needed to be outdoors, and I was surrounded by beauty. We have to make sure that we are giving children opportunities to surround themselves with that beauty outdoors, so they grow up to realize that it’s up to them to protect these spaces.”

“My grandfather wanted each person to develop a relationship with the out-of-doors where you don’t see another human being and all you can see and hear is natural,” Udall’s grandson Bryce Townsend told me. “The world and Mother Nature is so much bigger than anything that any of us have built and I think that he wanted each person to be able to experience the liberation of that.”

The Myths of Modernity

Yet Udall felt the tensions that always mark efforts to conserve wilderness while, at the same time, enabling humans to work and live in healthy communities. As a boy growing up in the Arizona desert, he’d seen how reclamation programs could enhance agriculture and the lives of many. From his first days in Congress, he’d supported the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a plan for dams and aqueducts that Udall thought could make the desert bloom, producing food for a growing population. His Commissioner of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy, proposed that two power dams be built right outside Grand Canyon National Park, flooding a small part of the Park itself. They would provide power to pump water from the Colorado over the rim and into an aqueduct that would irrigate much of Arizona. Dominy convinced Udall and President Johnson that the dams were needed.

Of course, conservationists, environmentalists, preservationists were all up in arms,” says Thomas Smith, “especially Dave Brower of the Sierra Club, because once a national park had been established. It was sacrosanct. You do not violate it.” Brower launched a massive campaign of anti-dam advertising and letters to Congress and the president. “And Udall was caught in a vise,” adds Smith. “If he didn’t support the project with dams to provide Arizona with water, he was done as an Arizona politician, and he had his eye on maybe the Arizona governorship or the other Arizona Senate seat once his service as interior secretary was over. On the other hand, he didn’t want to ruin his reputation as being the nation’s number one environmentalist by being for the dams. So he was caught in between. What should he do?”

Udall decided to let the river tell him. He took his family on a raft trip through the Grand Canyon. The trip, and David Brower’s lobbying, convinced Udall that the Grand Canyon dams should not be built. When I interviewed him in 1988, he explained his change of heart: “One of the most important things for any public official is to be open-minded. And Dave Brower showed me I was wrong about the Grand Canyon. And for that, I’m in his debt, no question about it.” I was moved by his humility.

Civic Courage

Yet stopping the dams was not without cost. Not only did it preclude further political possibilities for Udall in Arizona, but a compromise created a massive, air-polluting coal-fired plant to pump the water for the Central Arizona Project. The coal came from a strip mine on Navajo and Hopi land, producing its own environmental damage. Afterwards, both Stew and Mo Udall would describe the Central Arizona Project as a mistake. As his longtime friend Jack Loeffler remembers: “Stewart said to me, ‘The CAP shouldn’t have happened. What it’s really resulted in, instead of the agriculture that I envisioned at the beginning, is basically the metastasis of Phoenix and Tucson.’”

Udall at Glen Canyon

Udall had growing doubts about technology and our belief in what he called “The Myth of Resource Abundance” and “The Myth of Scientific Salvation.” In 1976: Agenda for Tomorrow, he questioned technology as a double-edged sword that brought conveniences, but with them, unintended consequences. And he questioned our spending priorities. If we didn’t waste our resources on war and even efforts like the conquest of space, he suggested, we might instead ameliorate poverty and make our cities cathedrals for gracious living.

The Grand Canyon dams weren’t the only dilemma Udall faced while at Interior. “Stewart always respected something that he called ‘civic courage,’ says biographer Smith. “He was whipsawed by the fact that he wanted that civic courage himself. He wanted to come out against the war in Vietnam. He stayed on because he thought his job was so important that it was worth selling out his civic courage, if you will, for something grander. And that was beautifying America. And on the whole, I think he probably made the right decision because certainly Johnson would have fired him.”

Atomic Fallout

In 1978, the Udalls moved back to Arizona, where Stewart found a new cause. With help from several of his children, he took up the legal cases of two groups of cancer victims: the “downwinders,” residents of the Southwest who were exposed to fallout from atomic testing, and Navajo uranium miners who dug the material to make the bombs. Udall’s longtime friend Jack Loeffler helped with the campaign. He understood Stewart’s concerns about the impacts of atomic testing from personal experience. As a young GI, Loeffler, a talented trumpet player, had joined what the Army called its “Atomic band.” In 1957, Jack found himself playing The Stars and Stripes Forever just before dawn in the Nevada desert.

And all of a sudden,” he told me, “the sky became far brighter than the sun. And, wow, you know, we’d heard about things like that. But you could almost see through people, the light was that bright. And there’s this enormous mushroom and it’s obviously not intended to happen. I was literally blown away by this. I had stopped playing because you can’t stop looking at it, even though you’re not supposed to. And you just wonder, why would anybody do this?” He was seven miles from the explosion.

For two decades, court after court refused to hold the government responsible for the cancers. For Udall, it was a long dark night of the soul. Depressed, he lost faith in the American government, and without favorable legal settlements, he earned little, and his meager savings sank toward zero. Long after many of the miners and downwinders were dead, Congress provided a measure of redress for their families. Their deaths were collateral damage from the Cold War secrecy that always troubled Udall. He warned that lack of transparency is deadly to democracy. His book, The Myths of August, lamented the secret change in American military policy that led to the acceptance of massive bombings of civilians in Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. His own bombing missions had avoided all non-military targets.

In his last years, Stewart often spoke to friends and family about how troubled he’d become regarding the ideological polarization that came to dominate American politics during the 1990s. He remembered fondly his days in Congress and Interior when many of his friends were Republicans, including the warm relationship he shared with GOP senator Barry Goldwater, whose views were so different from his own. What they had in common, Udall said, was a love of the land. For his part, Goldwater so respected the Udalls that he contributed to the Congressional campaigns of Stewart’s brother Mo, a Democrat.

Later Reflections

Udall speaking with President Kennedy seated

After his brother Mo died in 1998 and then Udall’s wife of 54 years, Lee, died in 2001, a deep sadness and a recognition of life’s fleeting nature was often part of Stew’s thoughts. He must have remembered the poem he wrote years earlier while standing by John F. Kennedy’s grave in Arlington Cemetery: “Then why do we stir our grief / or yearn for cancelled constellations / when we know all meteors sign the sky once—only once?” “We would sit outside and face west toward the Jemez Mountains and we would drink a glass of wine and just talk,” says Loeffler. “But one evening, he looked at me and he said, ‘You know, Jack? We must never forget the Great Mystery.’”

Udall wrote nine books. He was fascinated by the history of the West, and he challenged its popular myth as a place of gunfighters and violence, arguing that its real history was made by people who built communities and tilled the soil—Pueblo Indians and other tribes, Catholic and Protestant missionaries, Mormons and other settlers. He was particularly attracted to the indigenous cultures, who saw the land as Aldo Leopold did, as a community rather than a commodity. There was a violent West, he argued, but it was primarily characterized by the Army’s slaughter of Native Americans, not gunfights at the OK Corral.

In his final days, Udall gave occasional speeches, particularly about global warming, a threat he’d warned about in the 1960s. He wrote to his grandchildren of Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex. While he remained hopeful about the capacity of government to improve human life, his focus was far from the grand visions of the Central Arizona Project, moving instead toward decentralizing cities, encouraging localism, and simpler living. Never a victim of Emerson’s “hobgoblin” of “foolish consistency,” he was nevertheless willing to change his mind when new information or circumstances warranted it, and quick to admit his mistakes.

What Does Conservative Mean?

Udall always remained what he called a “cultural Mormon.” He shared his faith’s values of hard work, family, and community. In one sense, I think Udall felt that he was in fact a true conservative—he really wanted to conserve things: land, air, water, beauty, the arts and graces, gentle human relations, the best of tradition, democratic ideals. I often wonder what today’s so-called “conservatives” in American political life today actually want to conserve. They seem willing to use our natural resources as quickly as possible, to allow the unrestricted market to hollow our communities and families, to value economic growth as “the Holy Grail,” as Udall put it, and to allow the military-industrial complex to mushroom like a quickly spreading cancer. And to the extent that the Capitol invaders of January 6 are any indication, they have little respect for our history or traditions.

I think, too, that Udall would wonder what has happened to the rural values he once held deeply. In his earlier days, his rural neighbors respected honesty, humility, fairness, common sense, and generosity. They would have been appalled by, not drawn to, a would-be leader who symbolized conspicuous consumption, naked greed, narcissistic pride, a loud urban self-centeredness, and a disdain for truth, civility and kindness. I suspect he would wonder what changed rural America, how it has come so far from its earlier moorings and what might bring it back.

Stewart Udall, says Thomas Smith, “is going to be regarded as one of the premier environmentalists of the 20th century, ranking with Rachel Carson, David Brower, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. And I think he will be remembered for giving impetus to something that’s called the environmental movement. Yes, there was a grassroots input. Yes, he had presidents who favored his ideas. But without Udall, would the environmental movement have succeeded as well? I would say NO.”

Udall died on March 20, 2010, at the age of ninety, with his entire family at his bedside. A few years before he died, he wrote a letter to all of his grandchildren. It ended with these words: “The Earth needs your devotion and tender care. Go well. Do well, my children. Support all endeavors that promise a better life for the inhabitants of our planet. Cherish sunsets, wild creations and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.”

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  1. What a lovely tribute to a prophet who was little recognized among his own people (though I can testify that there is a segment of heterodox Mormons like myself for whom men like Udall are icons of a path tragically not taken). I knew much about the development and influence of his environmental ideas, but there’s obviously a lot more I don’t know (the comments you connect with him about the Central Arizona Project and “the metastasis of Phoenix and Tucson” are fascinating; it makes me want to compare Udall’s vision to that of the Southern Agrarians and the opposition to the Tennessee Valley Authority). I look forward to watching your documentary, John, and thank you for sharing this thoughtful reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today–it’s appropriate!

  2. Thank you for this introduction to Udall, John. I thought this was a very interesting profile and makes me curious to learn more. It’s also good to see one of your articles again, I feel like it’s been a while.

  3. Thanks Russell and “brz” (connect with me sometime via email:
    Glad you found some value here. I’m hoping thoughtful conservatives and progressives can start to find some common ground again now in the post-Trump era. I fear for America if we don’t. I’m honored to write for this great publication despite my left political leanings.

  4. Perhaps he was our countries “crunchy con”. A guy who understands balance and seeks to conserve all the important things. Cheers to him!

  5. What I like most about this piece — my number-one takeaway, at least — is that one person with good principles, vision, determination and a belief in the value of community can make vast differences in the world. Here’s hoping we never forget that, because I believe it’s still true despite so much dispiriting present-day evidence to the contrary.

  6. Thanks Seth and Dean! And Dean, that’s an important reminder. It’s easy to be cynical now when we need idealism more than ever and we need ideas that can unite all folks of good will.

  7. Thank you for profiling a hero, and thanks too to FPR for carrying your piece. When Udall published his letter to his grandchildren, in installments as I recall, I printed them out for my own kids and treasure them to this day in a binder. The paucity of our divisive political discourse, that we must label folks liberal or conservative and cancel or like accordingly! Stewart Udall was just good and that’s all that matters.

    He helicoptered in with local pols to open a landmark renovation of a covered bridge below our school in 1968. The 7th & 8th graders of our nearly one-room schoolhouse ran barefoot down the hill to shake his hand. Good times that helped establish a love and respect for the land.

    • Dana, thanks so much for your kind words. Where was this school of yours? If you don’t mind I’ll forward your comments to a couple of Stew’s grandkids. Where are you these days and what keeps you busy?

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