February 01, 1988 12:00 PM

Mo Udall’s sense of humor has always been at its best when his fortunes were at their worst. In the 1976 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the easygoing liberal from Arizona suffered a string of discouraging defeats by Jimmy Carter yet always seemed to come up smiling. After being rejected by the voters in still another primary, Udall said he felt like the missionary in the Mark Twain story who set out out to convert a tribe of cannibals: “They listened with the greatest of interest to everything that he had to say. Then they ate him.”

Long regarded as Capitol Hill’s most accomplished political humorist, Udall, 65, has been collecting and cataloging jokes and crank mail throughout his 27 years as a congressman. Three years ago, after “due deliberation and two stiff drinks,” he began writing a book of acquired wit and wisdom, Too Funny To Be President, in honor of an assessment of his career by political columnist James J. Kilpatrick. The book is a chatty compendium of gags, anecdotes and one-liners chosen from Udall’s storehouse of loose-leaf, ring-bound notebooks. Too Funny quickly sold out in Washington, D.C., and a second printing is planned.

As the human repository of so many laugh lines, Udall feels a semiserious responsibility to bring humor back to the Hill. Today’s legislators, he complains, are “more serious, richer and less humorous” than their predecessors. Hope, says Udall, lies with the likes of Sen. Bob Dole, whom he rates as the wittiest candidate in the current campaign. “He has a rich repertoire,” says Udall, “and the delivery of a stage-trained comic.” Sen. Ted Kennedy—whose family Udall acknowledges owing up to 200 jokes—shows promise but, like Gary Hart, “has an irritating habit of laughing at his own stuff.” Several months back Udall gave some punch-line pointers to his fellow Arizonian, Democratic presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt, who had approached Udall for some jokes to liven up his speeches. “Delivery is so important,” says the Congressman, “and Babbitt has improved a lot.”

Mo’s own humor is a legacy from his father, Levi, a onetime chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, who compulsively filed jokes under such headings as “Funerals: stock” and “Funerals: special.” The family gift of humor proved a godsend for Mo; when he was 6 years old, a friend accidentally stabbed him in the right eye with a rusty knife and the eye was later removed. He didn’t dwell on the loss. “My mother, Louise, would send off occasionally for a box of 36 new glass eyes,” Udall recalls. “It was an evening event when we’d sit down and pick one out. I’d pop one in and the color would be wrong. Another and it would be looking the wrong way. Eventually I’d settle on one.” Things were rougher in the schoolyard. “They called me ‘Cyclops’ and ‘One-Eye’ as a kid,” Udall recalls. “I used humor to deflect it.”

Mo grew up in St. Johns(pop. then 1,400), a town so small, he claims, that the entering and leaving signs were hitched to the same post. In high school the 6’5″ Udall was gawky and self-conscious, but he became a star athlete who went on to co-captain the University of Arizona basketball team and to play briefly as a professional with the Denver Nuggets of the old National Basketball League. Once a reporter watched him score 24 points in a game at Arizona and accused Mo of having two good eyes. “Here,” said Udall, handing him his glassie. “I haven’t been able to see much with this thing. Maybe it’ll help you.”

Sinking into a chair in his Capitol Hill office, Udall says, “I’ve got a great collection of one-eye jokes.” But these days vision is the least of Udall’s worries. During the 1976 campaign he began to feel aches and stiffness in his lower back and legs. Three years later he was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease, a chronic neurological disorder that inhibits motor coordination. “It isn’t fatal, but it can ruin your days,” says Udall, who is using an experimental European drug, Deprenyl, to combat it. “He never complains,” says Ella, his wife of 19 years. (Udall has a stepson, plus six children from a first marriage that ended in divorce in 1965.) Udall has given up skiing and running—which require balance—but swims regularly, keeps a full congressional schedule and is considering running next year for a 15th term. Whispers an aide: “He wears us out.”

Far from lapsing into self-pity over his affliction, Udall cuts it down to size with his customary good-natured humor. “Handicap?” he says. “I’m a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona. You can’t find a higher handicap than that.”

—Written by Margot Dougherty, reported by Jane Sims Podesta

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