Stewart Udall: Politician who served under Kennedy and was a pioneer of the environmental movement

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The Independent Online

Stewart Udall was not just the last surviving member of the original Cabinet of President John Kennedy. He was also one of the most effective and respected Interior Secretaries in US history, and a leader of the modern environmental movement before that movement even acquired its name. During his eight-year stint at the Interior Department – the entirety of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – Udall oversaw the addition of 3.85m acres, an area larger than Northern Ireland, to America's stock of national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and protected national seashores. In the process he brought a touch of Camelot glamour to his normally staid and bureaucratic department, hosting special evenings featuring the likes of the poet Carl Sandburg and the actor Hal Holbrook, to promote the conservationist cause.

Udall's beliefs prefigured those of today's green campaigners, as he described America's prevailing attitude to its natural resources as "the myth of superabundance." He set out his philosophy in a seminal 1963 book, The Quiet Crisis, appealing for a new "land conscience" to conserve an environment already threatened by over-exploitation of natural resources and a shrinking wilderness.

The US had to move beyond an obsession with "progress" for its own sake, that resulted in an "ugly America", he wrote. "We cannot afford an America where expedience tramples upon aesthetics, and development decisions are made with an eye only on the present." In October 1972, when the price of oil was barely $3 a barrel, he was the author of an article in the New Atlantic magazine entitled "Too many cars, too little oil" that more or less set out the energy problems with which America – and the world – is grappling today.

Udall pressed his ideas with passion, eloquence and skill. His additional good fortune, however, was that in that less partisan era, his sentiments were widely shared by Republicans as well. Then as now, money was a potent force in politics, but nowhere near as powerful as now. The momentum of the Kennedy and Johnson years carried through into the Nixon and Ford presidencies: "That was a wonderful time," Udall said after he left Washington to return to his native Arizona. "There was a consensus the country needed more conservation projects of the kind we were proposing."

His political acumen and connections came naturally. Udall, who flew bombing missions over Italy during the war before entering first the law, and then politics, belonged to the greatest Democratic dynasty (though Stewart always shunned the term) of the Rocky Mountain West – indeed, one of the most successful political families anywhere in the country.

Elected to Congress in 1954 for a colossal district that covered all of Arizona except metro Phoenix, Udall was instrumental in lining up the state for JFK at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. When he joined the new administration in 1961, his younger brother Morris took over his House seat. Fifteen years later, when "Mo" Udall ran for the White House, Stewart was his campaign manager.

Today a younger generation of Udalls is entrenched in Washington. In 2008 Stewart's nephew Mark and his own son Tom were elected to the US Senate from Colorado and New Mexico respectively; only the defeat that year of Gordon Smith, a Udall second cousin running in Oregon as a Republican, deprived the clan of a remarkable family treble.

After returning home in 1979, Udall took up the cause of victims of the US nuclear programme, including Navajo Indians who suffered lung cancer after mining uranium, and those exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons manufacturing and testing in Nevada. His efforts were crowned by the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act that provided up to $100,000 of compensation to victims as well as a formal apology for the harm they had suffered.

To the end of his days he was an enthusiastic outdoorsman, rounding off his last rafting trip on the Colorado river in 2004 with the 10-hour trek from the bottom of canyon to the rim, more than 4,000 feet above. He celebrated with a martini.

Rupert Cornwell

Stewart Lee Udall, US politician and conservationist; born St John's, Arizona 31 January 1920; Member, US House of Representatives 1955-1961; US Secretary of the Interior 1961-1969; married 1947 Irmalee Webb (four sons, two daughters); died Santa Fe, New Mexico 20 March 2010.