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Rep. Udall, Battling Parkinson's Disease, Fends Off Calls for Retirement

June 18, 1989|DIANE DUSTON | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In the House Interior Committee hearing room hangs a portrait of Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), standing tall with his coat slung over his shoulder. The longtime lawmaker, former presidential candidate and well-known humorist appears eager for a challenge.

But the man occupying the chairman's seat across the room no longer mirrors his portrait. He sits stooped in his chair, his hands quivering and his voice barely audible.

Although physically ravaged by Parkinson's disease, Udall, 67, fends off calls for his retirement and still gets his message through clearly.

Replacement Not in Sight

"My replacement hasn't been born yet," Udall recently told Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), who had the temerity to ask his fellow Democrat whether he had been grooming anyone to take over the House seat he's held since 1960.

"He's as tough as in the portrait," said Rep. John J. Rhodes III (R-Ariz.), whose district neighbors Udall's.

"His mind is still very sharp," said Rep. Don Young of Alaska, the committee's ranking Republican. "We've been fighting for 14 or 15 years. I've beat him two or three times, but it's very difficult."

Udall, who once played a year of pro basketball despite having a glass eye and unsuccessfully sought his party's presidential nomination in 1976, has taken the disease as a challenge and, his staff says, is fighting it with a sense of humor.

There has never been any doubt about that sense of humor.

Makes Joke About Disease

One of the jokes aides like to repeat was used by Udall back when news was circulating about Paula Parkinson, a shapely lobbyist whose kiss-and-tell habit had many members of Congress nervous.

"There are two kinds of Parkinson's disease," Udall said. "Both of them give you the shakes."

Although Udall, a liberal, says he doesn't use an iron hand to rule the committee, which oversees government lands, it's easy to see that legislation he opposes doesn't stand a chance.

Republicans stalked out of a committee session one day in May when their amendments to the Udall-sponsored American Heritage Trust Act were defeated by Democratic proxies held by Udall.

"My style is different," he said in a recent interview. He uses "the merits" to argue his position, he said dryly. Pausing, he said, "I jest."

Defined Power in Washington

Then, with the sagacity for which he is known, Udall defined power in Washington as "the ability for me to have you vote 'aye' when you want to vote 'no.' "

"It may be because of a favor from the past, because you like me or because I gave time to the opposition," he said.

Udall was hospitalized in May to have his Parkinson's medication adjusted and for treatment of pneumonia. An old friend, Ben Cole, wrote a column for the Arizona Republic suggesting that Udall retire.

"It hurt him," said Cole, former Washington bureau chief for the Republic, retired and living in suburban Virginia. "I'm sorry for that."

But Cole said he sticks by his column. "You can't ask people to stay young forever," he said, adding that he fears that people will start taking advantage of Udall because of his health.

Colleagues Support Decision

Committee colleagues from both parties support Udall's decision to stay.

"We owe him," Young said. "Even though we are adversaries on many issues (and) our philosophies are different . . . I respect him very much."

Another frequent adversary on the committee, Rep. Ron Marlenee (R-Mont.), said he would "support Mr. Udall for as long as he chooses to come to Congress. I have the greatest respect for him."

Former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, mentioned by Cole as someone who knew when it was time to pass the burden to younger shoulders, wrote Udall after the column was published.

"Your fellow Arizonans are sitting out here, reading that everybody in the Land of Oz is urging you to step down and come home," Goldwater said.

'To Hell With Advisers'

"I hope to God you do what you want to do, to hell with these advisers that want you to come back. I'd love to have you in Arizona, with me, (but) to be honest with you, I'd rather have you in Washington doing the things you do for our state."

When he was released from the hospital May 26, Udall's doctors told him to rest for a week or two. Five days later, he was back in his office.

"He keeps very active, which is very important," said Frank Williams, executive director of the American Parkinson's Disease Assn., of which Udall is honorary chairman.

Williams acknowledged that at times Udall looks bad, but said Parkinson's patients have intact mental abilities.

"They do not lose their faculties," he said. "They watch their body deteriorate day after day."

Battled Illness for 10 Years

Williams said some people function for 25 to 30 years with the disease. Udall has battled it for about 10. He also suffers from arthritis, said an aide, which accounts for his stoop.

Parkinson's is a neurological disorder that affects automatic movements, forcing sufferers to concentrate on muscle reactions normal people have without thinking.

Another symptom is loss of voice, said Williams.

Despite that handicap, Udall speaks to other Parkinson's patients at functions arranged by the association. "He's an inspiration because he hasn't given up," said Williams.

Many don't want him to. Goldwater gave Udall this advice on detractors:

"Tell them to go to hell."

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