Mo Udall: The Man Who Made John McCain

There were moments when John McCain had no idea if his friend even knew he was there. For eight long years, at least once a month, McCain would drive to the veterans' hospital in Washington, D.C., to sit for hours at the bedside of his political mentor, Morris Udall. The legendary liberal Democrat had been first admitted in 1990 suffering from the effects of Parkinson's. By the end, the debilitating disease had taken away Udall's ability to speak and to recognize visitors.

But McCain still went, bringing newspaper clippings about subjects that Udall loved most, like the environment and Native American issues. For hours, McCain would sit alone in that quiet hospital room and read aloud to his friend, convinced that Udall could still hear him. "I was a real jerk when I was first in Congress," McCain told Udall's daughter, Anne, after one of his visits. "I didn't know anything, and I thought I knew everything." Udall, he told her, had taught him the importance of consensus and compromise.

Now Barack Obama has claimed those principles as his own, promising to overcome the rancor of traditional politics and change the way Washington works. The young senator from Illinois makes a good case, and he symbolizes change in ways that no other candidate can. But McCain has a long record of bipartisanship and doesn't need to cede ground on the issue—thanks in part to Mo Udall and the remarkable relationship the two Arizonans forged across party lines those many years ago.

By his own account, McCain began his political career as a hothead—"an emotional partisan," he wrote in "Worth the Fighting For." Udall by then was a larger-than-life character from conservative Arizona who was considered the liberal conscience of Congress. The 6-foot-5 former professional basketball player (who had lost an eye in a childhood accident) was known for his ability to use humor to disarm his opponents. In 1976, he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination and failed, but the campaign elevated his stature.

In 1983, during McCain's first months in Congress, Udall suggested that they work together on issues of common interest. He invited McCain to joint press conferences back home, an unusual move for lawmakers of opposing parties. "He'd be in the middle of answering a question, and he would turn to me and say, 'I'd like to hear what John thinks,' or 'Congressman McCain and I are working on this'," McCain recalled to reporters earlier this year. "But we weren't. I didn't know a copper mine from a cotton farm. I was nobody." Udall was sharing some of his prestige. "It was an incredibly generous gesture on his part," McCain says.

In his book, McCain writes about a moment much later when he saw Udall, overcome with Parkinson's, fall and hit his head in his House office. In late 1990, Udall tumbled again, this time breaking his shoulder and several ribs. He resigned from Congress in 1991 and was hospitalized almost full time after that.

While Udall was in hospital, the Senate engaged in one of its earliest debates on what would eventually be known as stem-cell research. Lawmakers took up a bill that would overturn the ban on research using fetal tissue from elective abortions. Udall's children supported the bill, citing their father's illness and the hope that research could someday provide a cure. Anne Udall lobbied McCain personally. The Arizona senator had previously opposed such efforts, citing his belief that abortion was wrong. "It was a difficult decision for him," Anne recalls. "He talked about how much love and affection he had for Mo and how hard it had been for him to watch him go through this." McCain voted in favor of the research—putting him at odds with many in his party.

McCain has been an ardent proponent of the Iraq War, of course, and he has sided with the GOP in its opposition to abortion rights. But he has also crossed party lines on issues like campaign-finance reform—which Udall also championed—and global warming. In 2005, McCain was a key member of the Gang of 14, a group of Democrats and Republicans who worked together to prevent a shutdown of the Senate because of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. To this day, some Republicans question his party loyalty for that.

Following the Udall model, McCain has reached out to freshman Democrats. But it hasn't always worked: in 2006, he tried to work with Obama to form a bipartisan task force on congressional ethics reform. Obama initially agreed, but changed his mind and deferred to his party's leadership, who wanted the bills to be written in committee. The reversal prompted McCain to send a heated letter to Obama accusing him of "partisan posturing." Obama called the response "head-scratching."

In the final years of Udall's life—he died at 76 in 1998—only a handful of lawmakers came to see him. "Sometimes friendships only last as long as people are in power, but that was never true for John," says Udall's son Mark, a congressman now running for Colorado's open Senate seat. "People have said he did it for political reasons, but what was the utility to do it at that point of his career? Once you leave public office, your power is reduced. My dad was bedridden and couldn't speak, but there was a connection there between them, a spark." That spark endures, and will make the 2008 battle for the White House all the more intriguing.