When the history is written of conservation politics in the 20th Century, I’m sure four Secretaries of the Interior will figure prominently. Stewart Udall, who died last Saturday, will certainly be on the list.
As the New York Times noted, Udall’s record of engineering new National Parks is undeniable. He had a major hand in creating the North Cascades in Washington, the spectacular Canyonlands in Utah and the National Seashore on Cape Cod during the eight years he served under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The Wilderness Act was passed on his watch.
The Udall family statement, issued by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, noted that his father was the last surviving member of President Kennedy’s original Cabinet.
I’ve always loved the story of how Udall engineered naming RFK Stadium in Washington. Udall figured out how to outfox Lyndon Johnson. Few people can claim that distinction. Jeff Shesol tells the story in his fine book – Mutual Contempt – which deals with the complicated and toxic relationship between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy.
Shesol told C-Span’s Brian Lamb on Booknotes that naming the stadium after the assassinated former Attorney General did not originate with Udall, but the Secretary quickly embraced the notion when it was suggested to him by Kennedy partisans. LBJ actually hoped that the relatively new stadium, called DC Stadium prior to 1969, might be renamed to honor him.
As Shesol said:
“Because the stadium was built on national park land – the Anacostia Park…the secretary of the interior, with a quick dash of his pen, could rename the stadium without having to ask the president’s permission. And so they conspired to do this and they also conspired to do it on the very last day of the Johnson presidency so that the president could not countermand the order. So Udall went ahead and did this and Johnson was, of course, outraged, but there was nothing he could do. It had already been announced and leaked to the press.”
The Los Angeles Times obit noted that Udall, who was 90 at the time of his death, had just a few years ago “trekked with a grandson 7,000 feet up Bright Angel Trail, from the floor of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. He refused a National Park Service offer of a mule. His family ‘wouldn’t have liked it if I hadn’t made it,’ he noted, ‘but what a way to go.’ Upon completing his ascent, he headed straight into the bar at the Tovar Lodge and ordered a martini.”
Stewart Udall will be remembered as one of the greats. I’d nominate three others to join him as the Interior greats of the 20th Century:
New Deal-era Secretary Harold Ickes created the modern Interior Department and defined the job that he served in longer than anyone. Ickes was a fascinating character and a major political figure in the first half of the last century.
I’m biased, but I think my old boss, Cecil Andrus, who pulled off the greatest conservation accomplishment of all time with the Alaska Lands legislation and engineered 11th hour protections of several rivers in California on the last day of the Carter Administration, is certainly in the same company with Ickes and Udall.
And my list would include Bruce Babbitt, an often unpopular secretary in the West, who nevertheless brought a conservation ethic back to Interior after the less than distinguished conservation tenure of the Reagan and first Bush Administrations.
Ickes, Andrus, Babbitt and Udall. I’d like to have dinner and a martini and talk a little conservation politics with those four guys.