In his recent State of the Union speech, President Joe Biden led with jobs, then moved on to infrastructure, tackling Big Pharma, and grappling with the climate crisis. For those who follow politics – and about 27.3 million folks tuned in to watch this particular speech – it’s always interesting to compare how elected leaders over time have confronted the issues of the day.
It’s also interesting to gauge how any State of the Union address is received. But interesting isn’t the word to describe what happened the night of February 7 this year, when a relatively small but emboldened number of far-right elected officials in the 118th Congress responded with unprecedented bouts of derision and heckling to the 46th President’s remarks. The New York Times called it “a new, coarser normal,” while Vox political reporter Ben Jacobs likened the display to “open mic night at a comedy club.” But the antics didn’t stop there.
The opposition party is always given the courtesy of having a chance to respond to the sitting president’s State of the Union message. To undertake the task this year, the Republican Party chose newly elected Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who formerly worked as the spokesperson for Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor in the White House.
From the start, Sanders’ rebuttal skipped over the opportunity to discuss policy differences and instead launched into the name-calling that was her former boss’s stock in trade, accusing Biden of “surrender[ing] his administration to a woke mob” and characterizing the administration’s policies as a “left-wing culture war.”
“The dividing line in America is no longer between right and left,” Sanders warned. “It’s between normal or crazy.”
That demonizing rhetoric and the jeers and shouted taunts in Congress may make for great television, but it does nothing to make a nation great. It’s rude when the people who have been elected into such positions of power fail to adhere to basic courtesy, but it’s a catastrophe when they refuse to work with their colleagues to find solutions for some of America’s truly pressing problems.
What a stark contrast that is to the era that filmmaker John de Graaf revisits in his new documentary “Stewart Udall: The Politics of Beauty.”
It isn’t every day that a federal bureaucrat gets featured in a film half a century after his service in the nation’s capital, and more than a decade after his death. But de Graaf felt that Udall’s story needed to be heard by a new generation. The filmmaker has become increasingly concerned about how normal partisan tensions have ratcheted up into this current caustic scenario.
De Graaf was a teenager when John F. Kennedy was president, and he was on the cusp of adulthood as Lyndon Johnson’s administration worked to get an ambitious slate of Great Society programs passed into law. As a young person in the early 1960s, de Graaf was surrounded by the optimism and determination of a few short years in which the federal government achieved monumental domestic improvements in terms of civil rights, education and conservation.
Whether or not he was aware at the time that Stewart Udall was the Secretary of the Interior during that period, de Graaf couldn’t have helped but notice the manifold outcomes of Udall’s work. During the eight years he worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Udall added four million acres to the nation’s system of protected lands, launching more national park units than other Interior Secretary in history. That included four new national parks, six national monuments, 56 national wildlife refuges, and dozens of new nationally designated seashores, lakeshores, recreation areas and historic sites.
Udall also was the first public official to warn of global warming. He was an early advocate for solar energy. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act he championed protected some of America’s most beautiful drainage systems from being turned into a dammed-up series of lakes.
All of that must have had some effect on de Graaf as he built his own career as an award-winning filmmaker, author and speaker. Much of his work has addressed sustainability and environmental policies. His films have focused on community-supported agriculture, genetic diversity, co-housing, and habitat protection. And de Graaf’s best-selling “Affluenza” book and documentary of the same name struck a chord for many in their condemnation of materialism as a societal disease that could result in devastating consequences not only for people, but also for the planet.
In all, de Graaf has produced 40-plus documentaries and many shorter films. And although he is now in his 70s, he isn’t done yet.
In 2017, troubled by the cynicism and the polarizing style of politics that had ushered Donald Trump into the White House, de Graaf sought to offer an alternative. He launched a website –called “And Beauty for All” – and he hoped it might become a movement.
John de Graaf believes that all Americans, regardless of their politics, ethnicity, religion, or creed, could find common ground in an appreciation of beauty, particularly beautiful landscapes. “It’s something that brings people together,” he said in a recent conversation via Zoom. “I think it’s one of the most universal experiences we have, and I think it’s an evolutionary thing. Evolution has taught us that things we find harmonious and beautiful are things that are life affirming, that are good for the species. It has to do with settings, with water, with things that are green.”
So in early 2020, when de Graaf came across a “this-day-in-history” mention that January 31 was the birthdate of the late Stewart Udall, the filmmaker was struck with the inspiration for a new documentary.
“Stewart Udall: The Politics of Beauty” focuses on Udall’s work to pivot the Department of Interior’s focus from merely administering leases of public land to oil and mining interests, to considering the far-reaching benefits of conserving natural landscapes in their totality.
The documentary illustrates Udall’s political savvy in enlisting the enthusiastic support of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, who launched a nationwide beautification campaign. It sounded like a benign, ladylike thing to do – and Lady Bird endured the photo ops that showed her planting posies around Washington, D.C. – but in truth the Udall/Lady Bird collaboration packed a far more potent punch. She had the ear of the man in the Oval Office, and LBJ was perfectly willing to support his wife’s and the Interior Secretary’s ability to bring the American public together around the popular idea of new national parks and recreational areas, while the President toiled on more contentious issues like the war in Vietnam.
Udall also was involved in the expansion of civil rights. De Graaf’s “Politics of Beauty” film traces back to Udall’s efforts even as a college student at the University of Arizona to desegregate parts of that campus. But as Secretary of the Interior, Udall really flexed his muscle. He worked with tribal governments to stop the giveaway of their lands and, understanding that many Native Americans viewed the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an occupying force, he sought to recast that relationship by naming Robert Bennett (Oneida) to head the BIA, the first Native American to do so in 90 years.
In Washington, D.C., Udall refused to lease the new Department of Interior-managed stadium to the Washington Redskins football team until they agreed to hire Black players. And in 1962, Udall contacted colleges that were dedicated to serving black students – what today we call HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) – to recruit for the first time Black students for seasonal ranger jobs. One of those hired, Robert Stanton, stayed on with the National Park Service for nearly 40 years – capping off his career as the 15th Director of the National Park Service during the Clinton Administration.
Less known, but also revealed in this film, is Udall’s involvement in bringing more arts and cultural engagement into Washington D.C.’s political sphere.
Finally, and vitally important for viewers today, de Graaf’s new documentary demonstrates how Udall’s tremendous success was in large part due to his modest temperament, and his ability to cultivate bipartisan support. As a kid who was raised in a small town, he knew the importance of keeping one’s neighbors as friends. And as a Democrat who had come from a culturally conservative background – he was raised as a Mormon – Udall understood that there was more than one way to view a problem and its solutions.
In one clip in the film, the Interior Secretary is shown at a White House dinner, advocating for preserving Utah’s Canyonlands as a national park. This went against the Bureau of Reclamation’s recommendation to turn the site into a dam.
“They want to shove a road right down into the middle of this wilderness and to build works of man,” Udall said. “I don’t say they’re wrong, but I say there’s room for two points of view. And I say it with all the sincerity that I can muster.”
There’s room for two points of view? Sincerity in politics? Talk about novel concepts! Udall got a third of the million acres he asked for to turn the Canyonlands into a national park. Because sometimes there also has to be room for… wait for it… compromise.
De Graaf is currently touring the country with “Stewart Udall: The Beauty of Politics.” On January 31 of this year, precisely 103 years after the day of Stewart Udall’s birth, the documentary was screened at the Department of the Interior. Current Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former National Parks Service Director Robert Stanton, and many other dignitaries as well as Department staff were in attendance.
At the event, there was widespread acknowledgement that Udall had introduced a new ethic into the Department during his time there.
But de Graaf’s documentary also underscores that the lasting impact of Udall’s work has been to lead Americans to think about cultivating a new relationship with the landscape – one that is less about taming the wilderness or extracting its riches, but focuses instead on learning from the wisdom of nature’s complexity, listening to the breezes and birdsong and rushing rivers, and simply enjoying its beauty.
Visit https://stewartudallfilm.org/ to learn more about John de Graaf’s documentary and how you can view it.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.