Two fine examples of American public servants

Paying tribute to Stewart Udall and Liz Carpenter, who died this weekend. Both typified the best of the Kennedy-Johnson cabinets, and both gave all their lives to the public good.
Crosscut archive image.

Stewart Udall, center, sharing the triumph with friends over the creation of Canyonlands National Park

Paying tribute to Stewart Udall and Liz Carpenter, who died this weekend. Both typified the best of the Kennedy-Johnson cabinets, and both gave all their lives to the public good.

Two memorable figures from our national political past left the scene this past Saturday (March 20). Both were ceaseless activists; both were good human beings; both did things that will last well into the future.

Stewart Udall, 90, was the last living member of the Kennedy and Johnson cabinets of the 1960s. They constituted quite a group. On the foreign policy side, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara contributed greatly to the United States' historic mistake in Vietnam. But, on the domestic side, Udall, Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz, Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, War on Poverty chief Sargent Shriver, and Health, Education and Welfare Secretary John Gardner all were people of great dedication and humanity. Robert Kennedy, Nick Katzenbach and Ramsey Clark did distinguished service at Justice. Walter Heller and Art Okun were remarkable chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers, Charles Schultze was a highly effective director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Udall, Wirtz, and Freeman served in their jobs over the entire span of the Kennedy-Johnson years. There also, during that time, were a number of able and memorable White House staff members, including Liz Carpenter, 89, who also died Saturday.

Taken as a group, the cabinet members and White House staff of that time were far superior in intellect and dedication to any who have followed since. They helped bring about remarkable things: The economic stimulus package of 1961, the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, historic arms-control breakthroughs, and, in Udall's case, big achievements in environmental, wilderness, and endangered-species policy and the acquisition of lands for national parks, monuments, seashores, and open space.

Udall, with the active support of President Kennedy and of Lady Bird Johnson, in particular, successfully forged bipartisan coalitions on behalf of previously controversial policy changes. His approach contrasted drastically with the hyper-partisan, one-party approaches characterizing our national politics of recent years.

Thinking of them now, I recall that they all lived simply — no ostentation in their homes or personal lives — and all regarded their work as being more important than themselves. As Vice President Humphrey's assistant during that period, I truly enjoyed all contact with them.

President Johnson was effective and imposing but hardly a pal of his cabinet members. They often would convene in small groups in Humphrey's office, swapping stories and making fun of themselves. I often thought, at the time, that the American people would be truly pleased if they could personally see these informal, human bull sessions involving the people who served them at high levels. These were straight-ahead, honest and good-hearted people who wanted to do the right thing.

Liz Carpenter was Mrs. Johnson's assistant and press secretary. But she also was a force in the capital — irreverent, laughing, and respected for her intelligence and savvy.

After their official, federal service, both Stewart Udall and Liz Carpenter continued to devote themselves to what they saw as the public interest. In 1972, when many Democrats abandoned or sat out Sen. George McGovern's presidential campaign, both Udall and Carpenter traveled the country and worked hard for him.

Udall, after his cabinet service, wrote books, supported environmental groups and causes throughout the country, and devoted himself ceaselessly to helping Western citizens damaged by nuclear-weapons and uranium-production activities in the region. Suffering legal setbacks, he lobbied the Congress successfully on behalf of a Radiation Exposure Safety Act, signed by President George H.W. Bush, to compensate thousands of radiation victims. Udall wrote most of the bill himself.

Stewart Udall served as campaign manager of his brother Mo Udall's unsuccessful 1976 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. His son Tom is now a U.S. Senator from New Mexico, and his brother Mo Udall's son Mark is a U.S. Senator from Colorado. Many members of the Udalls' extended family have served in or campaigned for public office.

Liz Carpenter, after her White House service, helped established the National Women's Political Caucus and led the fight for an Equal Rights Amendment. She wrote a 1987 memoir in which she credited Eleanor Roosevelt for opening doors for women in the media; Liz had been a young reporter at news conferences held by Mrs. Roosevelt. When she was 71, she took over the raising of her late brother's children, ages 11 to 16. Liz's son Scott is a Vashon resident.

Stewart Udall and Liz Carpenter lived authentic American lives. Udall was born on a desert farm near the Arizona/New Mexico border. He was a tail-gunner in World II, a University of Arizona basketball star, a law partner in Tucson of his brother Mo, and in time became a congressman, Cabinet member, and lifelong activist on behalf of causes in which he believed.

Liz Carpenter was born in a small Texas town in Rep. Lyndon Johnson's congressional district. She became a high-school newspaper editor and a University of Texas journalism graduate before finding a low-level job in Washington, D.C. after her parents gave her the trip as a college graduation present. She dropped in on Johnson's congressional office, found he was absent on World War II military duty, and met his wife Lady Bird, who was running the office.

National-media obituaries celebrated their public achievements. What they did not say was that Stewart Udall and Liz Carpenter also were good and loving spouses, parents, and grandparents; that they were trustworthy people of integrity; and that they possessed real courage of the kind not often find in today's public life. During their days in Washington, D.C., Udall lived in McLean, Va., Carpenter in American University Park in D.C., and both "came home" well before the end — Udall to Albuquerque, Liz Carpenter to Austin.

Both were ill only a few days before their deaths. They were just too busy, I presume, to get sick.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of