Blogs Robin Lindley John de Graaf on his Powerful Documentary on Stewart Udall, Conservation, and the True Ends of PoliticsMay 21, 2023
John de Graaf on his Powerful Documentary on Stewart Udall, Conservation, and the True Ends of Politics
tags: environmental history,conservation,Stewart Udall
John de Graaf and Stewart Udall
We have, I fear, confused power with greatness.—Stewart Udall
Stewart Udall (1920-2010) may be the most effective environmentalist in our history considering his monumental accomplishments in protecting and preserving the environment and improving the quality of life for all citizens. Unfortunately, his tireless efforts for conservation and environmental protection and his gifts as a leader are not well known to the wider public today. His life offers inspiration and a model for, among others, public servants and citizen activists today.
As the Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969 under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, Udall took the department in new directions as he crafted some of the most significant environmental policies and legislation in our history. With his talent for forging bipartisan alliances, he spearheaded the enactment of major environmental laws such as the Clear Air, Water Quality and Clean Water Restoration Acts, the Wilderness Act of 1964,
the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, the National Trail System Act of 1968, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
Secretary Udall also led in expanding federal lands and he established four national parks, six national monuments, eight national seashores and lakeshores, nine national recreation areas, 20 national historic sites, and 56 national wildlife refuges including Canyonlands National Park in Utah, North Cascades National Park in Washington, Redwood National Park in California, and more. A lifelong advocate for civil rights, Udall also desegregated the National Park Service.
After his term as Secretary of the Interior, Udall continued to work for decades as an attorney advancing environmental protection, worker health and safety, human rights, tolerance, Indigenous rights, racial equality, and justice.
Despite his many achievements, Udall seems to have faded from memory and most people today know little of his monumental legacy. His name doesn’t usually leap to mind when considering the great leaders on the environment and human rights.
To remind us of Udall’s remarkable life and legacy, acclaimed filmmaker and activist John de Graaf created a new documentary, Stewart Udall, The Politics of Beauty (The film is available through Bullfrog Communities: www.bullfrogcommunities.com/stewartudall).
The film charts the trajectory of Udall’s life as it introduces viewers to a history of the origins of the modern environmental movement. There’s the journey from Udall’s childhood in Arizona, his schooling, and his World War II combat duty, to his commitment to public service, his terms in Congress, and his achievements as Secretary of the Interior. The film further recounts his later life as a zealous attorney, author, and voice for beauty, simplicity, and peace as he warned about climate change, health hazards, rampant consumerism, and the dangers of polarization and extreme partisanship. Especially engaging are interviews with Udall and his family supplemented with family films as well as scenes with JFK and Lady Bird Johnson.
The film is based on exhaustive archival research as well as interviews with historians, family members, friends and colleagues of Udall. Personal films, photographs and papers were shared with Mr. de Graaf and his team. As the life of Udall unfolds, the film provides historical context illustrated with vivid scenes from the turbulence, environmental devastation, and movements for justice and peace in the sixties and seventies. There are also stunning sequences of natural beauty from the forests, seas, deserts and other sites that Udall sought to protect.
The story of Udall’s life may provide a way forward for younger people today who are skeptical of politics and disillusioned by stasis and polarization that prevent meaningful change for a better quality of life and a more livable world. Udall’s visionary pursuit of environmental and social justice came out of his cooperative nature and his belief in democracy. May his inspiring example create hope and fire the minds of citizens today.
Mr. de Graaf is a Seattle-based award-winning filmmaker, author, and activist. He has said that his mission is to “help create a happy, healthy and sustainable quality of life for America,” and his documentary on Stewart Udall is an aspect of that desire. He has been producing and directing documentaries for public television for more than forty years. His nearly 50 films, including 15 prime time PBS specials, have won more than 100 regional, national and international awards.
Mr. de Graaf also has written four books, including the bestselling Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. The John de Graaf Environmental Filmmaking Award, named for him, is presented annually at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in California. He is also co-founder and president of Take Back Your Time, co-founder of the Happiness Alliance, former policy director of the Simplicity Forum, and founder of the emerging organization, And Beauty for All.
Mr. de Graaf graciously responded to questions about his background and his Udall documentary by phone from his Seattle office.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations John on your heartfelt and vivid Stewart Udall film. I appreciate the work you do and your persistence. Every documentary film must be a long haul.
John de Graaf: Thank you. I had a team of great people to work with, so I can't take all the credit.
Robin Lindley: Before we get to the Udall film, I wanted to give readers a sense about your background. What inspired you to work now as an activist, author and filmmaker?
John de Graaf: I was an activist first, and that led me to do quite a bit of writing, to print reporting. And that eventually led me to do a public affairs radio show at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. Doing that, I met a character that I thought would make a great film. And then I connected with this videographer at the University of Minnesota Minneapolis, and we put a film together that was then aired on Minnesota Public Television in 1977, and the film won a major PBS award and that launched me.
Four years later I started doing freelance documentary production at Channel Nine, the PBS station in Seattle. I was there for 31 years basically, until they kicked me out in 2014, but I've continued. My film Affluenza was a big success on PBS, so I was asked to write a book by a by a New York agent. Then a California publisher put out the Affluenza book, and that took off like the film. It has sold nearly 200,000 copies in 10 or 11 languages internationally.
I also made a little film called What's the Economy for Anyway? and that led to another book. I also edited a book called Take Back Your Time that was connected with research and activism I was doing about overwork in America.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations on those projects aimed at exposing social justice and environmental issues and at encouraging work to improve the quality of our lives.
John de Graaf: Yes. The quantity of our stuff, or the gross national product, or world power, or any of those things should not be the goal. Instead, the aim should be about the best quality of life for people. I think all of these themes connect with that.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for your tireless efforts. You title of your new documentary is Stewart Udall, The Politics of Beauty. What do you mean by the politics of beauty? It seems that expression ties in with your interests in the environment and nature as well as your efforts to promote happiness and better quality of life.
John de Graaf: I think there is a lot of evidence that our common, even universal, love for beauty, especially nature’s beauty, can bring us together and reduce polarization. It’s no accident that the most bipartisan bill passed during the Trump administration was the Great American Outdoors Act. Beautiful cities can slow us down, reduce our levels of consumption, and use of the automobile. Parks and access to nature are a more satisfying substitute for material stuff. The response to my film confirms this for me. Stewart was aware of all of this.
Robin Lindley: What inspired you to make a film now about Stewart Udall, who seems to be an overlooked champion for the environment? He's not remembered in the same way as naturalist John Muir maybe, or author Rachel Carson or Sierra Club’s David Brower.
John de Graaf: Of course, John Muir was a huge figure in his time. His writing was known by everybody and he stirred such a movement but he needed political figures like Teddy Roosevelt and later, Udall, to make his dream of the National Parks come true.
Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was very powerful, but that's what she did and she died soon afterwards. She wasn't able to accomplish a lot without people like Udall who actually created and passed legislation. I don't mean to in any way denigrate her. She was great and Udall loved and appreciated her. He was a pallbearer at her funeral. Her book stirred a lot of interest and attention, and people like Udall got behind it, and so it had a major effect.
In terms of environmental work, David Brower was exceedingly important because he was involved in so many things including the Sierra Club. Aldo Leopold was a key figure with his impact. And there have been many, many others since then. Now you'd have to probably add Bill McKibben, Gus Speth, and people like that.
Robin Lindley: It seems, however, that Udall has been overlooked or forgotten. Was that one of the reasons you wanted to do a film about him?
John de Graaf: I was impressed years ago when I interviewed him, but I'd forgotten about him until I saw a newspaper story in 2020 that said “a hundred years ago today Stewart Udall was born.” I was struck by my memory of him, and I knew he gave me a book so I went to my shelf and pulled down the book that he gave me and signed to me when I interviewed him.
And then I started doing a little more research, first online and then ordering biographies of him. And I thought, what a fascinating character. I knew that he had created several national parks and some things like that, and I knew that he had stopped the Grand Canyon dams because that was what I'd interviewed him about. But I had no idea about his civil rights activity, his work for world peace, his work for the arts, and his support for victims of atomic fallout and uranium miners, and so many other things that he ended up doing. That came as a complete surprise to me, and I think made the film richer.
Robin Lindley: Udall seems a renaissance man. I didn't know much about his life, and your film was certainly illuminating. What do you think inspired him to get involved in environmental protection and then in environmental and social justice issues?
John de Graaf: Number one, he did spend a lot of time outdoors when he was a kid on a farm in Arizona and hiking in the nearby White Mountains. And he got very interested in the natural world and the beauty of the natural world when he was out hiking.
And then, he grew up in a Mormon family, but it was unusual because it was a very liberal Mormon family. His father impressed on all the kids that Mormons had been discriminated against and that's why they were in these godforsaken places in the desert. They'd been pushed out of Illinois and Missouri and other places, so they had to stand up for other people who were discriminated against, and that included especially Native Americas because they lived in the area where he was, and Black Americans, and so forth.
And then, he fought in World War II. He flew on 52 very dangerous bombing missions. He was very lucky to come back alive and he said that he must have been allowed to live for some reason. He decided, “I really need to be involved in public service in the best way that I know how.”
When he came back, he played basketball at the University of Arizona, and he was very committed to civil rights. He and his brother Mo both joined the Tucson chapter of the NAACP right after the war. And they’d had Black friends in the military and Mo had been a lieutenant with a division of Black troops. And they both fought to integrate the University of Arizona.
And Stewart was especially interested in the environment and protecting the beauty of the West. Later, that went beyond conservation, beauty and preservation to a much wider view of ecology and the environment and pollution.
Robin Lindley: Udall’s probably best known for his role as the Secretary of the Interior under JFK and LBJ. How did he come to be appointed the Secretary of Interior? What brought him to the attention of the Kennedy administration?
John de Graaf: He worked with Senator John Kennedy as a congressman. They worked on a number of bills together in the late fifties, and he was very impressed by Kennedy.
When Kennedy decided to run for president for 1960, Stewart got behind him. Stewart was a very influential and persuasive person in Arizona at that time, though nobody knew anything about him beyond Arizona. But he was able to convince Arizona's delegation to unanimously support Kennedy for president over Lyndon Johnson at the Democratic Convention. And Kennedy appreciated that.
Kennedy was also looking for somebody who knew something about the outdoors and somebody who was a westerner because it was traditional that the Interior Secretary be a westerner. Stewart Udall was the obvious choice for Kennedy at that time.
Robin Lindley: Did Udall have a close relationship with Kennedy during his short presidential term?
John de Graaf: I think Kennedy was distant and Stewart wanted a much closer relationship than Kennedy would allow with him, or I think with anyone else. But they were friends, of course, and Kennedy supported what Stewart was doing and Stewart supported what Kennedy was doing. He felt that Kennedy had a prodigious intellect and capacity for getting things done, but he was not a person who was easy to make friends with. Stewart was actually much better friends with Jackie, Kennedy's wife. She thought Stewart was such a gentleman and a fascinating character. She liked his personality and very much liked his wife. They were friends with his family.
Stewart didn't know how Johnson would be, but it turned out that Johnson was a much more social person than Kennedy, and much easier to be with and have a friendship with, And Johnson really loved nature and was committed to environmental protection in a stronger way than Kennedy had been. And a lot of that came from Johnson’s wife so Stewart cultivated his friendship with Lady Bird Johnson who adored him, according to Johnson’s daughters.
Udall convinced Lady Bird Johnson that she should make a name for herself in conservation by first doing a beautification campaign and then through various other work. Lady Bird took up that Beautify America campaign and became a great advocate for the environment.
Robin Lindley: Didn’t Lady Bird and Udall share a concern about impoverished urban areas urban areas also?
John de Graaf: It didn't start with the impoverished areas. It started with the idea of beautifying America. But Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson loved the cities that they visited in Europe, and they felt that Washington was a derelict place-- a mess in comparison to the other capitals of the world. It was embarrassing to bring people to the United States capital.
They felt that they had to start their campaign addressing cities in Washington DC, and that justice compelled them to start in the poorest communities, which were African American communities. They decided to put money first into beautifying those areas before focusing on the neighborhoods that were already gentrified.
Robin Lindley: And that approach also ties into Udall’s interest in civil rights, which you stress in your documentary.
John de Graaf: Yes. He was very interested in promoting civil rights. One of his first discoveries as Secretary of Interior was that the Washington Redskins (now Commanders) football team wouldn't hire Black players. So, he basically gave them this ultimatum that, if they wanted to play in the National Stadium, which the Department of Interior controlled, they needed to hire Black players or Udall would not lease the stadium to them. And so, they hired Black players, and that changed football immensely. In fact, the Washington Redskins became a much better team. The Washington Post even suggested that Stewart Udall should be named NFL Coach of the Year because of what he’d done to improve the team.
Udall also discovered that the National Park Service, which he was in charge of, was segregated. They had Black rangers only in the Virgin Islands, which is primarily Black. He was determined to change that. He sent recruiters to traditionally Black colleges in order to do it.
His kids told me that he would watch the civil rights protests on television. And he would say things like “Look at those brave young people. They have so much dignity.” And these young people were getting slammed, and weren't violent. They were quite the opposite, and Stewart said, “These kids are what America should be all about.” He added, “We need kids like this in the National Park Service, and the National Park Service needs to look like America.”
Bob Stanton from Texas was one of the first Black park rangers, and he went to Grand Teton. He later became the head of the National Park Service. He's a wonderful guy and I’ve gotten to know him well. Bob's 83 now, but he has the deepest memories of all that happened and Stewart Udall's role in it.
Stewart also had to decide whether the 1963 March on Washington could happen because it was planned for the National Park areas of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. He had to grant a permit for the march to proceed, and there was enormous pressure for him not to approve the permit that came from the Jim Crow Democratic Senators in the South who were also putting huge pressure on President Kennedy.
The march happened, and it was huge, and its impact was huge. Stewart watched it from the sidelines, but you could see in the photos of the march that National Park rangers were standing right near Martin Luther King when he spoke.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing those comments on Udall’s support of civil rights. Didn’t he leave the Mormon Church because of its racist policies?
John de Graaf: He wasn’t a Mormon anymore by then, but he always claimed that he remained a cultural Mormon--that he believed in the Mormon ideas of public service, of community and family, and all those things. And Mormons did have a real ethic of serving the community in those days. Those communities were tight, and people worked together. And Stewart believed in that.
World War II really cost him his faith because he just couldn't accept that, if there was a God, God would allow the things to happen that he saw in the war. He became basically an agnostic but he did not reject the church, and he did not openly criticize the church until the mid-1960s when he became concerned about the church's refusal to allow Blacks in its priesthood.
Udall thought that was astounding and terrible, so he finally wrote a letter to the church saying there was a Civil Rights Movement and the position of Mormon Church was unacceptable. The church basically wrote back and said that it might agree with Udall but it doesn’t make those decisions. God does. Until God gives a revelation to the head of the church, things must stay as they are.
Ten years later, God gave a revelation to the head of the church and they changed the policy. Stewart basically was out of the church and was not considered a Mormon, but he was never excommunicated and never really disowned in any sense by the church. In fact, some of the strongest supporters of this film today are Mormons even though it’s clear about Udall leaving the church. Some evangelicals believe that former members are betrayers, but the Mormons don't take that position at all. In fact, they very much honor Udall. I just spoke at Utah State University, and a young Mormon woman come up to me after the screening and said she wanted to show this film. She said she was a board member of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Association, and she added that “We're proud of Steward Udall.” It was very positive to see that attitude.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for explaining that, John. I didn't quite understand Udall’s interactions with the Mormon Church.
John de Graaf: The church's view was that Stewart had honest reasons for rejecting policies and for leaving the church, and that was respected. And it did not make him a bad person. You had to decide that he was a good or bad person on the basis of the deeds that he did, which seems a good attitude
Robin Lindley: Yes. And Stewart Udall had a special gift for working both sides of the aisle to pass legislation including many important environmental measures. Wasn’t the Congress of the 1960s far less polarized than what we see now?
John de Graaf: It was, and particularly after Kennedy's death, but there was a lot of fighting and it was hard for Stewart to move things through. He certainly had some very key Republican support, but he also had some major Democratic opposition, not only from the head of the Interior Committee, Wayne Aspinall, a Colorado Democrat, but he also had southern Democrats who hated him because of his civil rights positions.
But after Kennedy was killed, and Johnson was elected in a landslide, that brought the Congress together around the idea of LBJ’s Great Society programs and civil rights laws. And Johnson did a much better job of getting things through Congress than Kennedy. Then you saw the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the Wilderness Act, and Endangered Species List--major bills that passed because Congress and Johnson supported them.
But some environmental laws didn’t get passed until Nixon came in because of the huge protests on the first Earth Day in 1970. These bills were already in Congress, and Congress moved them ahead. And when Nixon was president, he had a Democratic Congress. The bills moved ahead but there was never a veto proof majority except on a couple bills like the Wild Rivers Act. Nixon though, with the pressure of Earth Day and all the environmentalist sentiment at that time, signed the bills.
Nixon himself had an environmental sensibility. He was terrible on civil rights issues and the war but he was much more open about the environment. He realized the impact of pollution. He had seen the Santa Barbara oil spill, the polluted Cuyahoga River. Nixon felt comfortable in signing the act creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Robin Lindley: Is it fair to say that Stewart Udall was the architect of the EPA’s creation?
John de Graaf: It's fair to say that he was certainly one of the main architects. He didn't do it alone. He had key people in Congress who were supporting him, but he certainly pushed hard for it. I don't know if the idea was originally his, but he was probably the first who talked about it, and he certainly played a major role in it.
Stewart was also the first political figure to speak about global warming. He heard about it from his scientific advisor, Roger Revelle. Revelle was an oceanographer who worked with the Smithsonian and was one of the first scientists to look at how the oceans were heating up. He said we have a problem on our hands with global warming. Stewart was talking with him on a regular basis and then decided to go public with this threat. Other politicians knew about it, but they wouldn't go public, but Stewart said this was a major problem and he predicted flooding of Miami and New York and melting of the polar ice cap. And he was talking about global warming in 1967.
Robin Lindley: That surprised me. He was so prescient.
John de Graaf: Yes. There were smart scientists, but most politicians wouldn't dare touch it, even though the signs of much of it were already there. Daniel Moynihan gave a big public speech in 1969 about global warming as a big issue. More attention was probably paid to that speech than to Stewart, because Stewart wrote about the climate in books and in articles rather than in speeches.
Robin Lindley: It was interesting that, in one of Johnson's major speeches on the Great Society, he spoke about civil rights and poverty, and he decided to added a section that Stewart had suggested on the quality of life despite objections from some politicians.
John de Graaf: The speech was written by Richard Goodwin, the president’s speechwriter. But certainly, Goodwin had to have been reading what Stewart had written for LBJ because the language was exactly the same as much of Stewart's language.
Stewart had actually written short speeches for LBJ that had that language about quality of life and beauty. He wrote that when we lose beauty, we lose much that is meaningful in our lives.
That Great Society speech was interesting because Johnson was clearly influenced by Stewart and he agreed with his views about quality of life and nature. And Johnson told Richard Goodwin to have three themes in that speech: poverty, civil rights, and the quality of life and beauty. But then he told Goodwin to share the speech with the leaders of the House and Senate and get their opinions on it because he wanted them to like it and to support it. When Goodwin did that, he found that the Democratic leaders wanted him to take out the part about beauty and quality of life and to focus on the war on poverty and civil rights because they felt that these other things would distract from the main message that the president wanted to share.
The story is that Goodwin took those sections out of the speech and passed the speech back to LBJ who read the speech before giving it. He looked at Goodwin and he said, “What the hell happened to the stuff about quality of life?” Goodwin said, “You told me to show it to the House and Senate leaders. They said I should take it out because it was a distraction from your message.” And Johnson slammed his hand on the desk and said, “They don't write my speeches. That's just as important as the other stuff. Put that back in.” So that language on quality of life ended up being part of his incredible Great Society speech.
Robin Lindley: And I was surprised that Udall was working on a nuclear test ban treaty and was very concerned about nuclear proliferation.
John de Graaf: Yes. That was under Kennedy before the Test Ban Treaty of 1963 was signed by Kennedy and Khrushchev.
In 1962, Stewart was very concerned about nuclear war. He also had been very concerned about the dropping of the bomb on Japan. He felt, even as a soldier, that it was going beyond what he believed in. He believed that it was all right to bomb military installations but he did not believe that we should bomb civilians deliberately. He accepted that civilians would inadvertently be killed, but we should never target civilians. That was simply awful and against all notions of how we fight and against the Geneva Convention.
Udall went to the Soviet Union to discuss energy issues and he took poet Robert Frost along to meet Soviet poets like Yevtushenko because he knew that the Russians loved poetry. And at that time, Americans didn't pay much attention to it. So, he took Robert Frost, and he was able to get a meeting with Khrushchev where they discussed nuclear weapons and banning atmospheric nuclear testing, which was going on in both countries at that time.
Nothing immediately came of the talks because it was actually right before the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it apparently had some influence, because once that crisis was resolved and nuclear weapons were not used, the Russians came back to the table with Kennedy and agreed to ban atmospheric testing. They were able to do that and I think Stewart had some influence, although it's impossible to say for certain.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that insight. Udall must have been haunted by his World War II experiences. Many veterans were.
John de Graaf: Yes. With Mormons who were in the war, the stresses of the war pushed quite a few into being smokers and drinkers, which the Mormon Church didn't allow. But many Mormons came back smoking and drinking to relieve stress, and Stewart was certainly one of them because the war was such a tragic experience.
Robin Lindley: Didn’t Udall differ with Johnson about the war in Vietnam.
John de Graaf: Big differences. Initially Stewart shared some of the worries about the spread of communism as many people did at that time. Stewart was never really a far leftist, but he was a strong liberal and he was afraid of communism or any totalitarianism, especially after fighting the Nazis.
Initially, Udall believed that maybe we should try to stop the spread of communism and help Vietnam be democratic. But that didn't last for long. Once Johnson sent the troops and Udall started seeing what was happening to the people of Vietnam, Udall changed his mind, probably as early as late 1965. He tried to get Johnson to pull back.
And Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was a close friend of Udall. They hiked and backpacked together. Their kids knew each other. They always liked each other very much. But McNamara's son Craig told me that he didn’t know that Stewart was so against the war until he saw my film. He said he always liked Stewart and thought Stewart was a wonderful guy. And his dad liked him, he said, but his dad never talked about what other people thought about the war.
McNamara completely separated his work and family life so he would not talk at home about anything going on with other cabinet members. So, McNamara's son had no idea that Stewart was so vociferously against the war along with Nicolas Katzenbach, Johnson’s Attorney General, and a couple of others who criticized the war at the cabinet meetings and to the president. Craig McNamara wrote to me saying that he wished his dad had listened to Stewart Udall.
Robin Lindley: And, after the Johnson administration, after Udall left his post as Secretary of Interior, he worked as a lawyer with environmental justice and human rights issues. How do you see his life after his term as Secretary?
John de Graaf: He didn't know exactly what to do in Washington. He wanted to work as a consultant to improve cities, to make cities more livable. He became very critical of the automobile and our use of energy. And plus, he saw racism tear our cities apart.
Stewart was looking for things to do, but it was not easy. What kept him in Washington was that he and his wife wanted to allow their kids to finish high school with their friends. After the kids were adults and off to college, the Udalls moved back to Arizona and to Phoenix. It took a while for Stewart to figure out what to do there after he’d been in a position of power and influence. He was 60 years old with so much behind him.
Robin Lindley: He practiced law after his years as Secretary of the Interior and focused on social justice and environmental issues. The film notes his work with “downwinders” who were ill from radiation as well as miners who faced work hazards. What do you see as some of his important accomplishments after he moved back to Arizona?
John de Graaf: Two things: certainly, his work for downwinders and uranium miners for more than ten years was the most significant. Then in 1989, he moved to Santa Fe and did a lot of research and writing. In all, he wrote nine books, the most significant being The Myths of August, an exploration of the terrible impacts of the nuclear arms race. He loved history and several of his books are about the history of the American West.
Robin Lindley: You obviously did extensive research for the film. Can you talk about how the project evolved and some of the archival research and the interviews that surprised you? It seems that Udall’s family and colleagues were very enthusiastic and open to sharing their perceptions with you.
John de Graaf: The Udall family was wonderfully gracious and open to me. Much of the real research had been done by Udall’s biographers so I just picked up on that. As I talked to people, I discovered that no one would say anything negative about him; even those who disagreed with his politics had total respect for his humility and integrity. That’s not common with political figures, especially in this polarized time. I was especially impressed by current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s insistence that “the politics of beauty lives on.” And I was stunned by the paintings of Navajo artist Shonto Begay, a wonderful guy. I use some of his paintings in the film. I had great cooperation from the University of Arizona in finding still photos.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations John on the film and its recent warm reception at the Department of Interior with Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American in that role.
John de Graaf: Yes. That was a wonderful event. We had about 300 people there, and Secretary Haaland spoke and talked about Stewart.
And we are getting a very good response to the film at other screenings. My biggest concern is it's hard to get young people to come out to see it. But when they do, they like it, like the young Mormon woman who I mentioned at Utah State. And a Hispanic student at University of Arizona who is a leader of the students’ association there wants to present screenings to get students more active in politics. I think that's the way it's going to have to happen. The screenings already turn out faculty and the older community, but they don’t turn out students. But once they see it, they do respond to it. I've been very surprised at how many students come up to me afterwards and want to talk. They tell me that they never knew about any of this history. They didn't learn about it in school. We’ve also been treated very well by media. We’ve done fairly well in festivals, though I’m disappointed that my own hometown Seattle International Film Festival didn’t take the film.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for your thoughtful comments, John, and again, congratulations on your intrepid work to create and now display this moving cinematic profile of Stewart Udall. I learned a lot, and the film brought back many memories of the sixties, those times of exuberance and turbulence. The film not only illuminates our history, but it's also inspiring. Udall’s example offers hope for our divided nation now.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, illustrator, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, visual culture, and art. Robin’s email: email@example.com.
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