I cannot claim to be an expert on Stewart Udall, the Arizona Congressman, conservationist, supporter of environmentalist Casandra Rachel Carson, and interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who died this week at the age of 90.
I can say, from personal experience, though, that he was a breed apart from the money-grubbing, corporate ass-kissing, Washington cocktail circuit, elitist pigs who have headed up federal government departments in the days and years since Richard Nixon, in 1969, inaugurated the “Imperial Presidency.”
Back in 1968, when, as a 19-year-old college student, I was deeply involved in the antiwar movement against the Indochina War, I spent a summer traveling across the US. With a friend, Albee Baker, I hitchhiked from Connecticut to Seattle, where we worked at odd jobs, managing to save up a few hundred dollars each. Near the end of the summer, we bought a ’46 Dodge pickup truck from a Seattle cop, and began a road trip home, driving down the Coast Highway as far as San Francisco, before turning east for the transcontinental trek home to begin our next year of college.
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Short of cash, we paid for our gas (and oil – the old truck had a leaky front engine seal and was running through a quart of oil every 100 miles) by stopping at promising spots where I would pop open my guitar case, which featured a sign saying “gas money” on the inside of the lid, and would play and sing folksongs in return for donations from listeners. In places like Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, and elsewhere along the Coast, we collected plenty of money this way, but as we turned eastward and contemplated the nation’s vast, conservative Bible Belt, we knew the pickings would get pretty slim for a couple of long-haired hippies.
We had wanted to see Yosemite National Park, and when we drove down into the main valley there, we realized that it would probably be a great place to earn one last pile of money before hitting the long dry stretch through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska, where we imagined, correctly it turns out, that busking would not prove too popular. So, while Albee dozed in the truck bed, I popped open my guitar case, took a seat on the running board of the truck in the middle of the main parking lot and began to play. People started walking over from all directions, stood around and listened, sometimes making requests, and the money was really pouring into the case.
Suddenly, an old ranger drove up. He told me I had to stop, and looking a little embarrassed, said he had to arrest me for panhandling. At that point, Albee sat up in the truck bed, rubbing his eyes. He was promptly arrested too. I had never heard the term panhandling, and objected that we had not been passing around a pan or anything, but the ranger explained that the term meant begging. Again I protested. We hadn’t been begging. I had been playing music, and far from bothering anyone, people had been coming over to me to listen. But the ranger wouldn’t accept my argument. He took us to the main ranger station, where I noted that there were a couple of jail cells, and began filling out our tickets.
While he labored on the paperwork, there was a loud bang outside the building. Seconds later, a young ranger, who looked more like a marine than a naturalist, ran in and yelled, “Where’s the first aid kit? I just shot a kid who I arrested for drugs. He tried to run away as I was bringing him in.” He ran back out with the medical kit, leaving me and Albee a little more subdued and anxious about our situation.
When he finished with our tickets, the ranger handed them to us. I looked down and saw the fine: $500.00 each! “Don’t try to skip out on those fines,” the ranger said as we left. “It’s a federal offense, and the FBI will come after you if you don’t pay.”
$500! That was more than we’d earned all summer between us. The tickets cast a pall on the rest of the trip home.
When I finally made it back to Connecticut, I decided to protest my fine. Not expecting much, I typed up a letter to Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. In it, I described how my friend and I had been earning our way across the country by performing folk music on the street, and explained that in the Yosemite parking lot, I had been entertaining people, not harassing them for money. I did not, I wrote, think it was fair for the government to be fining someone $500 who was just trying to make a few bucks to get by. (I also objected to the shooting of a fleeing drug suspect by a ranger.) I was stunned when, a few weeks later, I got my letter back, with a handwritten note on it, written in red ink. “I agree. Forget the fine,” the note said. It was signed: Stewart Udall.
I’m just trying to imaging Ken Salazar, the current secretary of the Interior Department, a friend of big oil, a defender of Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and an ally of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, writing a letter like that.
In the decades since 1968, the Interior Department has become more and more an advocate of huge, corporate, extractive industries. Even the Parks Service has become, increasingly, a business operation. More significantly, the whole US government has become less and less connected with the ordinary citizen. The idea of a member of the president’s cabinet personally writing back to a citizen – much less a citizen who had been arrested and fined for a legal transgression – is, at this point, almost inconceivable.
And, yet, there was Secretary Udall, in 1968, at the height of the student antiwar movement, writing a note to a hippie folksinger, vacating a fine he had received from the Park Service for violating a park ordinance.
Udall did a lot of great things during his career. He oversaw the establishment of four major national parks – Canyonlands, Redwood, North Cascades and Guadalupe Mountains – six national monuments, nine national recreation areas and eight national seashores – often over significant local opposition from real estate and corporate interests. Earlier, as a private attorney, he successfully represented thousands of uranium miners, nuclear industry workers and ordinary citizens or Utah and Nevada who had been exposed to radiation by the US nuclear program (he won in federal court but the decision was overturned on appeal).
But to me, Udall represented something else: a public servant who never felt he was so important that he didn’t have to pay attention to the ordinary citizen – even one who had broken the law. In these days, when government has become obsessed with “law and order,” when police have become paramilitary enforcers, and when elected officials and government executives and bureaucrats have come to see themselves as elevated in importance way beyond the teeming masses they rule, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t always like that.
Nor does it have to be.